Internet Wild Horse Auction and Divisive New Mustang Management Plan

Onaqui herd near Dugway, Utah. Courtesy BLM

If your Internet-savvy kids have been begging for a pony, you might want to block the Bureau of Land Management’s website. The agency, which is responsible for wild horses and burros, is holding an online mustang auction beginning March 10. The animals up for bid go for a minimum $125 per horse ($250 for mare-foal pairs), and they’re currently living in the agency’s holding pens. 

Big name celebs like singer Sheryl Crow have adopted mustangs. But Ms. Crow has joined a number of horse advocates in speaking out against Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s controversial new plan to try and decrease free-ranging wild horse populations. Essentially, the scheme calls for large-scale roundups. Despite protests, federal officers rounded up 2,500 wild horses in December; in February, land managers delayed another roundup of 600 more until after foaling season.

The conflict is set to come to a head on April 30, the Reno Gazette Journal reports. On that day, "a federal court will hear arguments from wild-horse advocates that the Interior Department and Bureau of Land Management are violating the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act by rounding up horses and putting them in expensive holding facilities."

Alexa Schirtzinger reports on the issue, including the plan's inclusion of aggressive fertility control and managing sex ratios in free-roaming herds, in the March-April issue of Audubon:

On December 28, despite widespread protests and an unsuccessful lawsuit, the federal government launched a roundup of 2,500 wild horses in an attempt to keep the iconic animals’ numbers in check. Using helicopters, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials forced mustangs in Nevada into holding pens before putting them up for adoption or sending them to long-term federal corrals. While the agency has removed horses a few hundred at a time for decades, this latest move was part of an aggressive new strategy Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced in October 2009 to ramp up roundups and relocate two-thirds of the estimated 37,000 free-ranging horses in the West to newly constructed pens in the Midwest and East.

The BLM insists the approach is essential for managing feral herds, which can double their population in just four years. The creatures can wreak ecological havoc, stripping habitat of vegetation that other species, like sage grouse and pronghorn antelope, rely on, and exposing themselves to mass starvation (see “Horse Sense”). Furthermore, demand for mustang adoption has plummeted—from 5,700 in 2005 to fewer than 3,500 last year—creating a glut of 34,000 horses in BLM holding pens. “It’s mythology that horses will maintain their populations on their own,” says Brian Rutledge, director of Audubon Wyoming. “In that process we lose all the other sagebrush denizens.”

The proposed policy, which will cost $64 million and requires Congressional approval, has enraged some activists. Chasing horses with helicopters is “government-sponsored cruelty,” says Ginger Kathrens, head of horse advocacy group Cloud Foundation, who thinks the proposed “Sala-zoos” just constitute more costly pens for the free-ranging animals.

BLM spokesman Tom Gorey says the “more salient” aspect of Salazar’s plan involves addressing population growth rates at their source. By removing thousands of horses now, says Gorey, ultimately the agency won’t have to add to holding pens and will round up only as many mustangs as can be adopted. Financially, that’s crucial: Holding costs took up 70 percent of the $40.6 million BLM wild horse program budget last year.

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