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Why Are Wild Horses Brutally Uprooted From Public Lands While Private Livestock Can Stay?

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Sources: In Defense of Animals, Earth • Food • Life

The Bureau of Land Management is misleading the American people about the nation’s wild horses and burros.

Wild Horses, Mt Garfield, Book Cliffs, April 7, 2012.jpg
Ginger Fedak is a lifelong animal welfare advocate and horse professional, having spent decades teaching about and advocating for domestic and wild horses.
BY
SOURCES

Introduction

Every year, thousands of wild horses and burros are chased by helicopters and ripped from their native land in terrifyingly brutal, and often deadly, roundups. After capture, they are corralled in crowded dry lot holding pens, where many contract diseases or injuries and some then die or are killed. Some of the captured wild horses and burros are adopted out or sold to questionable buyers.

Many of these horses are in turn sold to slaughterhouses. These horrendous actions are perpetrated by the U.S. government while using taxpayer dollars to protect the vested interests of cattle and sheep ranchers.

Wild horses and burros are scapegoated by private ranchers for the degradation of public lands caused by their own exploited livestock. Ranchers blame the wild equids so that these absurdly unnecessary roundups will leave more resources for their private use. After wild horses are rounded up, more cattle and sheep are put on the public land.

BLM Roundups: Torturous and Indiscriminate

The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the government agency responsible for “managing” public lands and the wild equids who live on them. It practices cruel and egregious methods of removing wild free-roaming horses and burros from public lands, even though these lands have been set aside by law for their “principal use.”

The roundups are physically tortuous and indiscriminate. Young, old, and heavily pregnant mustangs are forced into a violent stampede over rocky and dangerous terrain.

Low-flying helicopters chase the terrified horses into traps. Young animals collapse in exhaustion or are rendered helpless from injury as they run in fear for their lives. Spontaneous abortions and stillbirths can occur among pregnant mares. Bonded family bands are shattered in the chaos marking the end of their freedom.

Shipped and Killed

Many of these federally protected wild horses are eventually shipped to the killing floor of horse slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada. The federal protections afforded to these horses in the U.S. are stripped as soon as they become the property of a buyer or adopter with the transfer of title.

Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971

The unanimously passed Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 was meant to protect these “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” Yet, instead, the government seems more interested in protecting the interests of cattle and sheep ranchers.

Taxpayer Cost

Many Americans might be disturbed by the plight of wild horses and burros on our public lands for various reasons. Not only are helicopter roundups inhumane and deadly, but they are also costly to American taxpayers. Every year several millions of taxpayer dollars are paid to helicopter contractors and private holding facility contracts. If that wasn’t bad enough, many more millions are lost in the subsidized grazing leases that corporate ranchers insidiously benefit from.

The BLM acknowledges that public land livestock grazing leads to the loss of millions of dollars every year. Corporate ranchers currently pay only $1.35 per animal unit month (AUM). An AUM is the amount of forage that would be consumed by one cow-calf pair, or five sheep in one month. Meanwhile, the average going rate for grazing leases on private land is about $22.60 per AUM.

This constitutes a taxpayer subsidy of approximately $21 for feeding every cow-calf pair per month. During the 2015 fiscal year, the BLM’s grazing program lost $22 million, without even counting the costs of other management activities. The agency spent $36 million on administration costs for the grazing program, while only bringing in $15 million in grazing fees.

No Economic Sense

Many United States citizens might say that the country needs to subsidize these livestock ranching operations to provide affordable meat products for Americans. However, while more and more Americans are including plant-based proteins in their diets, large taxpayer-subsidized livestock operations are selling the vast majority of their product to foreign markets where meat prices are much higher.

There is no economic sense to be found in a grazing program that destroys our public lands to ensure profits for the large corporate ranchers selling meat abroad while losing millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money every year.

Livestock Destroy Public Lands

It has been widely proven in scientific studies and research by various government agencies that cattle and sheep are highly destructive to public lands due to the grazing practices private ranchers use. Cattle and sheep are non-native species to North America, who came from moist, humid climates in Europe and elsewhere.

They are not suited for arid and semi-arid landscapes. A 1977 report by the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) titled “Public Rangelands Continue to Deteriorate” stated, “The Nation’s public rangelands have been deteriorating for years and, for the most part, are not improving. Deterioration can be attributed principally to poorly managed livestock grazing.”

Even though the report was a scathing rebuke of the BLM’s policies, which allowed the overgrazing of public lands, and called for additional and updated management plans, little has been done in the 45 years since this report was published. Required management plans are sorely lacking.

Livestock Impact on Climate

We should also be concerned because livestock contributes significantly to global warming and the climate crisis. The digestive systems of wild horses and burros do not contribute to greenhouse gases.

According to a 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Cattle-rearing generates more global warming greenhouse gases, as measured in CO2 equivalent, than transportation.”

Wild Horses: Native Species That Improve Habitats

Conversely, wild horses are a native species to North America because they evolved on this continent, beginning 55 million years ago. Over the millennia, they evolved on this continent from a small deer-like figure to what we now see as the modern horse. They are well suited to the climate and topography of the Western states.

Wild horses and burros have also been shown to improve their habitat and range. Their simple digestive tracts allow whole seeds to be deposited in their manure whereas cows’ four-stomach system destroys any ability to reseed the land.

Wild equids can also help the land in other ways, such as naturally maintaining grass and brush at safer levels and acting as a mitigation to potential wildfire occurrences, thus saving lives and millions or even billions of dollars in destruction.

With all the positive effects that wild horses and burros have on public lands, their contributions to local economies from wild horse viewing eco-tourism and photography, and their beloved status among American citizens and people all over the world, why are they then so harassed and mismanaged by the BLM? Especially when it is costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Corporate Capture, Disinformation, and Propaganda

The livestock and extractive industries have a stranglehold on the BLM and Congress. Taxpayer subsidies enrich these private companies allowing them to make political contributions to maintain their influence.

Backed by Big Ag, gas, oil, and mining, the BLM scapegoats wild horses instead of removing ranchers whose cattle and sheep degrade the land and vastly outnumber horses; often by 30 to 1 in many places. Disinformation and carefully selected partial information are fed to the American public in a profuse propaganda campaign. This is done to purposely present misleading information to justify “emergency” roundups in many wild horse herd areas, including the world-famous Onaqui and Sand Wash Basin herds in Utah and Colorado, respectively. This propaganda campaign seems to be continuing.

False BLM Claims

In 2022, the BLM claimed that the herd from Colorado’s Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area must be drastically reduced due to the health of the horses and the rangeland. With prolific amounts of photographic evidence and testimonials to the contrary, the BLM ignores it all and has forged ahead with the roundup.

Despite evidence showing these horses and their range are in good condition and calls from the public and political figures to stop this roundup, the agency moved forward with its plans. It was Colorado’s largest roundup to date. The BLM removed more than 800 horses, dangerously running them down with helicopters during the hottest days of summer.

Colorado Wild Horse Project

In a stunning bi-partisan victory for wild horses, the Colorado General Assembly passed unprecedented and groundbreaking legislation known as the Colorado Wild Horse Project that was signed into law by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis during a special ceremony on May 20, 2023. The bill was created when legislators, advocates, and other stakeholders came together to provide protections from brutal roundups and removals for Colorado's wild horses.

The bill’s primary sponsors were Sens. Joann Ginal (D) and Perry Will (R), House Majority Leader Rep. Monica Duran (D), and House Minority Leader Rep. Mike Lynch (R). These sponsors secured bipartisan support in both chambers of the General Assembly, where the bill was passed by an overwhelming majority after expert testimonies by advocates, including myself.

This new state law is necessary because nationally, the U.S. Congress has struggled to pass laws favorable to America’s wild horses and burros for years. No wild horse and burro-friendly progress has been made on the national front since the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed.

Gov. Polis and First Gentleman Marlon Reis have been staunch supporters of America’s wild horses and burros and have spoken out to halt the roundups in the state. However, the national government is solely responsible for “managing” wild equids, so there was little that could be done at the state level. The new law is the culmination of several years of work to allow the state to be part of the stewardship process.

The bill signing ceremony occurred in the Little Book Cliffs Herd Management Area (HMA) in the western part of the state near Grand Junction. Gov. Polis said they could see nine wild horses from where they stood. Before signing, Gov. Polis delivered some encouraging remarks.

With the new law, Polis said, “We can ensure that our wild horse herds have a humane and sustainable future in western Colorado. We also want to highlight that this will set a national example. It’s a first-of-its-kind partnership for how the state, ranchers, advocates, local communities, conservationists, and federal land managers can come together to achieve the best outcome to successfully manage these majestic animals that are synonymous with the American West.”

State Senator Perry Will, one of the bill’s four original bipartisan sponsors, was also at the signing ceremony. He said, “I’m [really] excited about this bill. It’s a collaborative effort, and I think it’s really going to set the stage for [the] management of ... wild horses into the future. I see this as a win/win for everyone involved, and the big win is for the wild horses because that's the whole purpose.”

SB23-275 prioritizes retaining healthy wild horse herds in Colorado’s four HMAs, thereby reducing costly and destructive roundups that have proven ineffective in the national plan.

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