What to Do About Wild Horses?

Onaqui herd near Dugway, Utah. Photo courtesy BLM

Earlier this month the head of the Bureau of Land Management shot down proposals to lift the congressional ban on building horse slaughterhouses.

Attendees at the “Summit of the Horse” met in Las Vegas on January 4 to discuss repealing the ban that closed U.S. plants that processed meat for human consumption, citing the approach as a tool for managing the 30,000 mustangs currently housed in federal holding pens. There are an estimated 38,000 free-roaming wild horses and burros.

The last slaughterhouse shuttered its doors in 2007. Recently, legislation in several states has aimed to clear the way for such facilities. Though not a sought-after meat source here, it’s popular in Japan, France, and other countries.

“Slaughter is not a viable or acceptable management option for America’s wild horses or burros which are removed from BLM managed land,” BLM Director Bob Abbey said. “We must be willing to pursue other alternatives that address the challenges we have when managing wild horses and burros.”

The BLM continues to thin herds through helicopter roundups and by putting wild horses and burros up for adoption (the agency even runs online adoption auctions). It also administers birth control, known as PZP, to mares, and the bureau is considering creating wild horse ecosanctuaries.

In “Saddle Sores” (January-February 2011), Incite columnist Ted Williams tackles this contentious issue:

The Obama administration has dared to tell the truth about feral horses. In October 2009 Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that horses were “out of control” and creating a “huge problem.” In what came to be called the Salazar Initiative, he proposed aggressive action, including, but not limited to, transplanting horses to large preserves in the Midwest and East. But when Salazar floated the idea at a June 14, 2010, public meeting in Denver, he got eaten alive by literally hundreds of feral-horse groups, which called his proposed reserves “Salazoos.” Save for a few non-controversial, ineffective, and ongoing strategies like skewing sex ratios by releasing more stallions, he abandoned his initiative.
Because horses are the only ungulates in North America with solid hooves and meshing teeth, they are particularly destructive of native vegetation. Audubon Wyoming director and Rocky Mountain regional vice president Brian Rutledge worries especially about sage grouse and the whole sagebrush ecosystem. “Sage grouse [endangered in fact if not by official decree] fed the eastward movement of the Native Americans and the westward movement of European Americans,” he says. “Now we expect them to tolerate our fragmentation of their ecosystem and the decimation of its plant life by a feral domestic animal. Sadly, we have become a culture that longs to make its decisions without information.”
A feral horse is a far greater threat to native ecosystems than a cow. When grass between shrubs is gone cows move on; horses stomp the shrubs into the dirt to get the last blade. What’s more, when cattle deplete forage they’re moved to new allotments, and they’re taken off the range in winter. But horses pound vegetation all year. And because horses live on range incapable of consistently sustaining them they sometimes starve and, in the process, cause the starvation of such sensitive desert creatures as sage grouse, bighorn sheep, Gila monsters, pronghorns, and desert tortoises. Not only will horses beat springs and seeps into mud holes, they’ll stand over them, running off wild ungulates, people, and even sage grouse.
The feral-horse lobby dismisses these facts as fiction concocted by the BLM on behalf of the cattle industry. For example, Ginger Kathrens, founder and director of the Cloud Foundation (which takes its name from a feral horse she calls Cloud), contends that the BLM is purposefully concealing the reality that feral horses are good for what ails the earth. “We call them ‘the green horses’ because they have so many benefits to the land,” she told Friends of Animals, which, along with her foundation, sponsored a “March for Mustangs” in Washington, D.C., last March 25.

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