Tony Vagneur: No time for horsing around
In 1976, we were floating down the Green River, in the middle of nowhere, and had we been forced off the river, it would have meant almost certain death trying to walk out. Rock and brush-covered, almost vertical canyon walls enclosed us on both sides and then Caroline, my wife at the time, excitedly pointed to a cloud of dust coming down an almost invisible path — a wild horse band gently trailing along single file, going for an afternoon slurp from the stream. Listening to a horse drink is being close to heaven.
As my friend and confidant, Susan Tixier (R.I.P.), lawyer, activist, bartender, skier and founder of Great Old Broads for Wilderness used to say, “The closest most people get to wilderness is to look it up in the dictionary.”
Unfortunately, many wild-horse advocates don’t seem to have any deeper understanding of the cause they celebrate.
In 1971, at the urging of “Wild Horse Annie,” the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was signed into law by President Nixon. At that time, there were approximately 27,000 wild horses and burros free-roaming on 42.4 million Bureau of Land Management acres. The idea was to stop wholesale slaughter or other decimation of the wild horse and burro herds, keeping an American legend alive indefinitely.
The intent of the Act was to keep as many as 27,000 wild horses and burros on BLM and other wild land. Accordingly, “the Secretary of the Interior shall cause additional excess wild free-roaming horses and burros for which an adoption demand by qualified individuals does not exist to be destroyed in the most humane and cost-efficient manner possible.” Even though authorized to do so, the BLM is so far refusing to destroy animals to control overpopulation. This stance is likely to continue, even in the face of projected population increases of about 20 percent per year.
The Act of 1971 has been incredibly successful and so far, the total population of horses and burros running wild on 26.9 million BLM acres is approximately 72,000 animals.
Additionally, 50,000 or more horses and burros, considered to be “over-population,” have been placed in holding pens or long-term pastures rather than be killed. Feeding these animals saps more than half of the BLM’s budget, leaving it underfunded to carry on any type of meaningful management plan, including many of the periodic roundups they used to do.
In 2015, according to Ben Masters (“Crisis on the Range,” Western Horseman, August 2017), near Las Vegas in the Wheeler Creek horse management area there were 400 wild horses and 150 burros trying to live off land suitable for 66 horses and 35 burros. They were starving to death. The BLM did an emergency roundup — dozens of horses had to be euthanized because they were past saving, and the rest, while still being called “wild horses,” were relegated to holding pens for the rest of their lives. This is about as close to management of wild horse herds as the BLM gets.
There are those who say that the available grazing land should be increased for the horses and burros, but that is a “kick the can down the road” solution. Without other controls in place, the wild horse herds would soon over-populate increased land, as well.
In an effort to help mitigate part of the problem, many BLM cattle permits have been reduced or terminated, but still the onslaught continues — deer, elk and antelope, small game and other wild things have been forced off the land due to this overgrazing.
The government has absolutely no grazing control over wild horse herds. With other grazing animals, like cattle or sheep, the government can control how many animals inhabit a grazing area, how long they can graze, and at what times of the year they can graze an area. None of those controls exist with the wild horse herds.
According to Barry Perryman, PhD., of the University of Nevada who has been studying range management for decades: “How is it fair to the reptiles, songbirds, small mammals, pronghorn, ranchers and future generations of people to inherit a degraded rangeland that we knew was being damaged and could’ve been prevented?”
Sterilization by dart works, but only in areas small enough where personnel can keep track of the horses they’ve vaccinated. In other areas of over a million acres and thousands of horses it is impossible for volunteers to keep track of the mares they’ve vaccinated. Plus, the mares need to be given boosters each year after they’ve received the original injection.
You would think with many of these horses facing starvation, their birth rates would naturally decline, but this does not appear to be the case. Adoptions, which used to number about 8,000 per year are down to 2000 to 2,500 a year.
There are no easy solutions, but we cannot continue to let wild horses and burros graze public land without a viable management plan. For their sake and ours.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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