Unwanted horses: The war on wild horses and burros continues in America

Tom Davis

Published on Wednesday, November 21, 2012 12:01 AM PST

Kate MacDonald/Special to the Sun


U.S. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar – AP File

America’s magnificent wild horses and burros unwillingly contribute to the unwanted horse problem. Although “protected” by law, and costing the taxpayers nothing while on their ranges, they are increasingly rounded up and placed in long- term holding pastures, which are really ranches owned by a few lucky and wealthy individuals who have government contracts. There are currently over 50 thousand horses and burros in holding facilities, while the numbers running free are in question, because no one really counts the actual horses; statistical models and occasional aerial surveys are used. The Bureau of Land Management’s official estimate of animals in the wild is 36,000. But that number has been exactly the same for many years, while each year thousands of mustangs and burros are rounded up by dangerous, traumatic and sometimes deadly helicopter chases, losing forever their freedom and their family groups to face a very uncertain future. Horse advocates and range scientists say the number remaining in the wild is closer to 20,000. That would mean there are more than twice the number of horses* in captivity, costing taxpayers 100,000 every day, than remain on their legally designated ranges, eating for free.

Why, when it costs nothing to leave the horses alone, does the government spend 80 million dollars every year to round them up? This is the obvious question, yet the answer may not be so simple. The answers in fact may be so buried that to begin to unearth the secret agenda of those operating the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program, it would take hundreds of hours of research and several Freedom of Information requests. Which is exactly what a reporter did. And some of the answers he found begged more questions, which he then asked, which caused the Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, to blurt out, in public and on video: “You know what, you do that again … I’ll punch you out!”

Salazar is a member of the Cabinet; he holds the highest position of authority over the DOI which runs the BLM. In other words, he’s the head cheese of the wild horse program. The reporter had written about the latest scandal: 1,700 mustangs sold to a Tom Davis, who allegedly in turn illegally transported them over Colorado state lines, from which point they “disappeared;” which is exactly as ominous as it sounds: it is almost certain they were slaughtered in Mexico. That is a reasonable assumption as Davis is a known “kill buyer.” “Hell, some of the finest meat you will ever eat is a fat yearling colt,” he told ProPublica, the Pulitzer Prize winning news site. “What’s wrong with taking all those BLM horses they got all fat and shiny and setting up a kill plant?”
Wild horse advocates are furious and ask another reasonable question: how could the BLM have sold these animals to Davis and believed that he was going to find them all good homes? The very idea is laughable, they say. “The BLM is setting the stage for the mass slaughter of captured wild horses,” said Suzanne Roy, spokeswoman for the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign.

This is a huge scandal. That a politician would threaten a reporter is outrageous; declining to be interviewed (also known as stonewalling) is a common approach! But the real scandal is that the BLM has apparently turned its back on its job, its mandate to protect the horses on their legally granted ranges and keep them free from harassment, round up and slaughter. The law was gutted in 2006 by the Burn’s Amendment, and since then, title can be instantly given for any horse over 10 years old**; but like an angel’s wings, even over that amendment is the mandate to never sell mustangs to be slaughtered. Every mustang adopter must sign a paper stating that. BLM spokespersons continue to state that should not happen, and is not happening. But it seems that thanks to ProPublica’s investigative writing and Salazar’s inopportune comments, the fate of the 1,700 horses Davis bought will soon come to light.

If it is proven the BLM knowingly sold the horses to slaughter, will heads roll? Will the BLM be dismantled, will Salazar be replaced and will the round-ups cease?

The further one digs, the deeper the answers, many of them literally under the earth, because the fight against the mustangs is really a war over the land. Public land, all 609 million acres of it. Energy companies want to frack natural gas, mine shale, drill for oil, dig coal and erect wind farms. Many of these activities so pollute, poison and degrade the land that the wild horses must be removed. And above ground, the grasses and plants themselves are at issue. The cattle industry has long been at war with the mustangs, even though cattle and sheep outnumber horses 50 to 1 on the public lands, cost taxpayers $132 million a year and only supply 3% of America’s beef. The horses are often removed for the stated reason “not enough forage or water” yet thousands of cattle and sheep are allowed to remain.

Land has always equated money; and while an oil well makes money, does it benefit the American people, or just the few stockholders? A balance must be struck between energy independence and protecting our land. The horses have already been removed from 40% of their lands. Must they continue to share those remaining acres with cows and sheep? Must all the predators be removed from those lands so sheep and elk hunters can have an easy kill? If we did not spend $80 million on roundups and long term holding and helicopter pilots, maybe that money can be used to buy off damaging grazing leases, trade private land for public and frack that; and pay back states that lose a few bucks on hunting tags and tourism. Much of the rest of the world views America’s mustangs not as a problem of unwanted horses; they see them as iconic symbols of freedom and the pioneer spirit that made America great. Maybe in time Americans will see them that way too.

AUTHOR: Jerry Finch
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