Friday, April 16, 2010

Wild Horses: Wildlife Not Livestock

 This is from December, but it worth a read now.

Guest Editorial by Jyoti Germain
Horses are not designated as livestock by the USDA - (Photo by Terry Fitch)
Treated as livestock or treated as wildlife? In regard to the fundamental issue at stake in the management of wild mustangs and burros on public lands, the federal government and the Bureau of Land Management have sided with the “treated as livestock” option. Congress has continually allowed the “cowboy” management option to be policy by funding the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program (WHABP). Their funding is app 95+% for the on-going “gathers,” a gentle word for the intense stress and injuries caused by them, as well as for the “short” and long term corralling/storage of wild horses and burros that are removed from their home ranges (legal Herd Management Areas) by the  BLM WHABP. These federal cowboys have a “stockpile” of them now and heavily lean toward the “lets harvest (slaughter) them” or “lets euthanize them” mind set. Consequently, the DOI’s BLM-WHABP is actually an anti-wild horse agency.
Horses have a remarkable history in North America and these herds have a history going back to anywhere from the 1500’s to 1800’s. In 1971, a law was passed to protect wild horses from the abuses suffered for decades at the hands of ranchers, their aircraft and their cowboys known as “mustangers.” They made a pretty profit but it was horrific for the horses. That is well documented. Why did the Wild Horse and Burro Act get such wide support from both sides? I can only surmise that the anti-wild horse ranchers/cowboys (AKA beef/meat producing lessees of public lands via BLM) knew they would actually control the policies carried out by BLM, simply because they have worked the political side to set it up that way and it’s benefited them for decades. Having a law is one thing but who is given responsibility for carrying out that law is another thing entirely. The protection of wild horses and burros were given to the ones that would treat them as livestock.
With the passage of the Wild Horse and Burro Act, Congress and the American public made a commitment to preserving wild horses in the areas “where they are presently found.”  At the time, areas covering about 53,000,000 acres were designated as “herd areas.” Where once they had roamed over hundreds of millions of acres of open land, at least now they were guaranteed some ranges where they could be into perpetuity. Since that law was enacted, BLM has removed hundreds of thousands of horses from these areas while reducing their habitat or herd areas.  Today, approximately 33,000,000 million acres still contain wild horses and are called “herd management areas” or “HMAs.”  The BLM says they only want about 25,000 wild horses to live on these lands. (That’s all the forage and water they want to give them) Their decisions regarding “Appropriate Management Levels” (AMLs) are based on giving them the smallest share of water and forage. The ratio is approximately one wild horse for every 1,300 acres of their reduced legal HMAs. Most of these HMAs have more cows than wild horses.
The bond between human and horse points back to prehistoric times - (Photo by R.T. Fitch)
The PL (public land) ranchers and their associates with political connections have enormous influence over the Department of Interior and the BLM. Many private contracts go to those that chase the wild horses with helicopters into pens, truck them to and keep them at holding facilities. There are ranchers that contract to just put them out to pasture. PL ranchers maintain the status quo for their millions of beef cattle and the wild horses are stuck and stagnating in short term holding corrals for indefinite periods. Most advocates believe slaughter is the likely end for many but is carried out beyond the public view. Thus, the Wild Horse and Burro Program’s main purpose is to commit on-going invasive and destructive practices upon innocent creatures who have inherited a sad fate. Private profit is the driving force and the bottom line is to promote the ongoing production of lots of cows and sheep (AKA animal agriculture). Yet there is still more to it than that. There comes with this group a bullish attitude and belief that they can impose their will upon our government and completely minimize or even eliminate the wild horses from their habitats. This is an attitude shared not only among beef industry groups but hunting groups whose main interest is in hunting big game. If they could shoot the horse, then they would want them there. This is why you may have heard the cry “managing to extinction” by wild horse advocates.
The rugged and strong wild horses in Nevada and other western states number less than 30,000 and are a tiny fraction of the grazing animals such as the domestic cattle that are pervasive all over this country yet the ranching and hunting groups are relentless in their arguments that wild horses are overpopulated. That is their opinion but it is not the fact. These meat-oriented groups do not care how much suffering is imposed by these roundups. They just want them gone and want us to think this is justified because they are convincing America that they are “overpopulated.” It’s very unfortunate for the wild horse herds that the beef and hunting industry lobby’s hold on the BLM will forever leave these animals subject to a strategy of “controlling” their numbers in a livestock/cowboy fashion. This means no end to the infinite helicopter roundups, captures, traumas, injuries and deaths that go on month after month and year after year. These “cowboys” are not giving up the fight nor are they interested in changing their ways. So, what would be their way now? Horse Slaughter facilities reopened. Why?  Greed….the bottom line…. The cowboy wins the duel.
Wild Horses of the Pryor Mountains
However, there are more and more humane groups that do protest. In the humane and compassionate America, there is an ongoing upset and disgust regarding this situation which is neither fair nor humane for tens of thousands of wild animals. Wild horses are here. They live wild and are wild. Let’s take a fair look at how we can end the on-going harassment of these special animals. It is the principles that are inherent in nature that can best “manage” these animals and do it at no cost to taxpayers. All we need to do is support a balance of prey and predator. (The BLM’s line about no natural predators; it’s far from the truth) Allowing natural selection to control their populations and then standing back to allow them to fill an ecological niche within their legal herd areas as a part of nature reserves on our public lands would finally be a shift away from the cowboy culture that controls the BLM and their Wild Horse and Burro Program.
The wild horse eliminators would like to argue that horses are not native wildlife. That may depend on your definition. They are actually “reintroduced native wildlife” in North America.  The “modern” horse (Equus Caballus) originated, evolved and lived wild on our continent for over 1.5 million years. Humans have only been in North America for about 12,000 years. Cows were brought here from Europe about 500 years ago. Do the math and see which of one of these you think is more native. For eons wild horses shared the landscape with about 33 other groups of large animals that ended up going extinct. With statements by qualified scientists and experts that the wild horses on our public lands qualify as a reintroduced wild life species, we are on the way to the cultural acceptance of wild horses being allowed a place in the wildlife community. A positive focus of a responsible Wild Horse Program would be to transition the largest Herd Management Areas toward balanced, vital and ecologically sensible open space nature reserves that include only native species which also recognizes the horse as native. In such a reserve, our government would not be spending our tax money on killing predator species, a service provided to ranchers by The Wildlife Service of the Dept of Agriculture to protect their cows, calves and sheep and which drains millions of taxpayer’s money.
Wild horse advocates are aware of the fundamental unfairness to the horses and burros. They feel that we have wrongly devalued the American wild horse. As a relatively undeveloped resource for study and enjoyment, wild horses could actually bring an economic benefit if the public could be offered recreational and vacation opportunities to do eco-trips – hikes or horseback rides out to see them and the flora and fauna that share their habitat. Wildlife ecologists, biologists and land conservationists could bring wild horse herd areas into the 21st century with preserves that use “Reserve Design” principles. Improving habitat quality by focusing on vegetation structure, prey species, competing species, water sources and other habitat elements would be a much more creative and constructive use of our tax dollars. In regard to “range management,” studies show that horse manure actually helps to build fertile soils and in other countries, horses have been managed to actually help to restore targeted ecosystems. Horses also do not produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas which contributes to global warming and is emitted by cows in their belches. You may be aware that methane traps about 20-25 times the heat of CO2. A good argument could be made, that in this day and age, supporting horses is so much better than supporting cows.
People who have had the chance to work with mustangs know that they are an incredibly undervalued resource for the enjoyment of our lands and open spaces. Amazing natural horsemen like Monty Roberts, Pat Parelli, Linda Parelli, Clinton Anderson and Rick Lamb have helped horse people appreciate the amazing strength, endurance and intelligence of these remarkable animals. Photographers and film makers such as Ginger Kathryns and Carol Walker have taught us about their nature, their beauty and their toughness. If those minds were put together, no doubt they would come up with the some amazing ideas for creating a few vast wild horse reserves where wild horses could flourish with natural ecological controls on their numbers through natural selection. That’s how nature works and that is also how a natural wild horse preserve/herd area would work.
Horses are incredibly adaptable. They will adapt to us and we must also adapt to them. But it would require the private interests to cut back on the greed. It would help if we cut back on the beef if we’re at all inclined. Spending a lot of (tax) money to do the wrong thing is a status quo that should end.  It is institutionally structured mass abuse. If the horses are actually doing fine on the range which means their body condition is above a 3, the best thing and most cost effective thing to do is LEAVE THEM ALONE. We are not taking “starving horses” off the range if their condition shows they are not starving!  If the BLM is only serving private interests in their “management” of wild horses then Congress needs to issue a stop order or moratorium on all roundups. The only reason our government keeps this going is from a lack of principle or those PL ranchers are fattening their pockets as well.
For more information and to help stop the institutional abuse of America’s wild horses, email:

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