Wild horse advocates had a hard time enjoying the July 4th holiday after news that the Bureau of Land Management was considering drastic measures to deal with the approximately 30,000 horses that have been removed from public lands: euthanasia and the removal of limits on their sale.
“We know this is not a popular option,” states the BLM’s June 30 press release. “But we are at a critical point where we must consider using the legal authorities allowed us.”
“Rightly or wrongly, there are a large number of horses in long term holding,” says Robin Lohnes, executive director of the American Horse Protection Assn. and a member of the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board. “The crux of the matter is, how do we reduce the cost of long term holding and redirect that savings to range management?”
A wild horse advocate for over 20 years, Lohnes considers herself the BLM’s biggest cheerleader and biggest critic. She describes the BLM’s announcement as a cry for help and notes that it was a disappointment but not a surprise to those who’ve been following the wild horse situation over the years.
A Rubik’s Cube
Under the terms of the 1971 Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act, the BLM is charged with protecting and managing the wild horses on America’s public lands. Because the agency is also charged with managing the land itself, along with the many other wildlife and public demands on it, the BLM juggles conflicting needs. Lohnes likens the agency’s actions to the workings of a Rubik’s Cube. Each adjustment impacts another piece of the puzzle, usually in a way that works against the
Wild horse herds are maintained on 199 Herd Management Areas, each of which has a population count, a “Herd Management Level,” determined appropriate to maintain both the horses’ and the land’s health. The horses in jeopardy now are those who were removed from the range over the past several years in the BLM’s effort to attain what it considers sustainable populations for each HMA. The intent was that these horses would find new homes as domestic animals through the agency’s adoption program, which has placed 219,000 horses since its inception in 1973.
“Obviously the adoption program has not been working at full speed,” says Lohnes. “There are lots of reasons for that, but the main side effect is large numbers of horses in long term holding.” The BLM strives to gather adoptable horses, typically between 5 and 10 years of age. “But the tendency has been to put them in long term holding because that’s the most cost effective and ‘get to them when we get to them’,” continues Lohnes. “But they never get to them. The 9-year-old horse becomes an 11- or 12-year-old horse, etc.” The older the horse, the less adoptable it becomes.
The BLM’s announcement invites public comment with the “idea that we might find a more palatable solution,” says WH&B division chief Don Glenn. “Nobody wants to euthanize these horses.”
Removing limits on the sale of unadopted horses is equally unpalatable to many. In 2004, an ostensibly minor amendment to a massive Congressional budget bill, commonly referred to now as the “Burns Amendment,” enabled the BLM to sell removed horses that were deemed unadoptable. When a group of such horses turned up at a slaughter plant in Illinois, public outcry was strong. The BLM quickly added limits to its sales contracts to prevent the sale of horses to slaughter. Last year, the last of three slaughterhouses in America was shut down, yet the packing plant possibility remains because such facilities still exist in Mexico and Canada. Removing the sale limitations would increase that risk.
The BLM has many critics. A major complaint is that the agency has simply removed too many horses. “Wild horse advocates, conservationists, scientists and national humane groups have repeatedly offered solutions for alternative, ethical wild horse management policies,” says Jill Anderson of the Return to Freedom American Wild Horse Sanctuary in Central California’s Lompoc. “Despite this, the BLM has continued to kowtow to pressure from special interest, removing more horses from the range than their management program could support. Now their ‘solution’ is simply to kill them.”
Money is the immediate problem. The cost of holding these horses will exceed $26 million for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30: That’s over three-quarters of the BLM’s $37 million budget for the Wild Horse and Burro program. In a tough economy and an election year, nobody expects Congress to greenlight more money for wild horses.
“We are between a rock and a hard place,” says Glenn. “We don’t have the funding to do the gathers that need to be done and also continue to care for the 30,000 horses in holding.” Fuels prices haven’t helped. In the last year alone, the BLM’s tab for transporting horses and feed rose by $4 million.
Even in good economic times, the adoption program has not been able to find homes for even a third of the horses removed annually. It is particularly tough now, reports Amy Dumas, program manager for the BLM’s WH&B in California. “Adoptions are down and I understand why. I was just looking at hay prices for my own horses and I was floored!”
Historically, California has been a leader in the number of horses its residents have adopted. “Right now we are in a Catch 22,” Dumas continues. “We’d like to do more adoptions and so forth, but we are at a standstill with the budget and getting more people to adopt is difficult.”
Nevada has the most wild horses, but 22 of the BLM’s 199 Herd Management Areas are in California. Encompassing 7.1 million public acres and 2.3 million acres of non-BLM land, the rangeland is currently home to approximately 3,000 horses and 500 burros. The agency stipulates that 1,746 horses and 453 burros is the appropriate management level for these areas. Yet, as elsewhere throughout the country, the cost of maintaining the removed horses has eaten up much of the budget for further gathers the agency considers necessary.
Let Them Be?
Some wild horse supporters assert that, if left alone, nature will keep the herds at a level the land can support. Glenn calls that a bad misunderstanding: “We do gathers to protect the land, the wildlife and the horses themselves. If populations are allowed to increase on their own, they will outstrip their habitat.” As an example, he outlines an aftermath of overgrazing in which denuded land becomes vulnerable to invasive and opportunistic plants, like cheatgrass. “It grows real fast in the early spring, and becomes very dry by summer time, just as lightening storms arrive.” Fires are often the finales in such chains of events. Stopping the gathers could result in deaths more cruel than euthanasia, Glenn asserts. “A horse that dies from starvation suffers for a long time.”
Far more cattle than wild horses graze America’s public lands, but Glenn stresses that these herds, unlike the horses, are mostly restricted to seasonal grazing and that their numbers are spread over much bigger areas.
As to when the BLM will decide whether to act on the drastic options it is considering, Glenn says that will probably happen early in the new fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. Asked if there is any element of scare tactics in the BLM’s June 30 announcement, Glenn answers, “We have to make the public aware of the dilemma we are facing. It would be irresponsible of us not to do so.”
Large-scale sales or adoptions are possible solutions to the glut of unadopted horses, says the WH&B Advisory Committee’s Lohnes. The BLM has responded to invitations from the Humane Society of the United States and the ASPCA to work together on remedies. The realities that led to the current crisis are complicated, and any solution will be “a compilation of lots of different changes,” Lohnes observes. The BLM is using birth control in 47 herd management areas, and the idea of gelding many horses is under consideration. “A lot of ideas sound great on paper, but when you vet them out, there are pros and cons to every one of them.”
How To Help
Adopting a horse, of course, is the greatest way for concerned individuals to help. Dumas encourages visitors to California’s two short-term holding facilities, in Litchfield and Ridgecrest, where horses are ready and waiting for adopters year-round. They’ve been vaccinated, de-wormed and freeze-branded.
The California WH&B program is blessed with an active and sizable volunteer corp, many of whom are experienced horse people that want to help new adopters meet the challenges of taking home a wild Mustang. “We have an extensive network of mentors,” Dumas says. “They help us do compliance checks and they are our #1 form of advertising.” Compliance checks are visits to ensure adopters are providing good care. Volunteers helped the state’s WH&B conduct approximately 2,000 checks in the last year.
Two satellite adoptions are scheduled in California through the rest of this year: Aug. 16-17 in Norco and Sept. 13 in Beaumont. Horses can be adopted at the short-term holding facilities any time.
The Mustang Heritage Foundation is a mighty force on the adoption front. The Ft. Worth’s non-profit’s marquee programs are the Extreme Mustang Makeover and Mustang Challenges, which it runs in partnership with the BLM. Most recently held at the Horse Expo this past June in Sacramento, these events pair a trainer and a wild horse. The trainer has 100 days to prepare their equine charges for a competition in which the horse’s rideability and emerging skills are showcased. Spectators then bid to become the new owners of these nicely started Mustangs. The inaugural Mustang Makeover placed most of the 100 horses that took part, and subsequent Mustang Challenges in Wisconsin and Sacramento placed another 85 horses with new homes.
Well aware of the BLM’s predicament, the Foundation resolved to increase the number of horses in its second staging of the Extreme Mustang Makeover. Slated for Sept. 18-21 in Ft. Worth, TX, this year’s Makeover will feature 200 riding-age horses and 200 yearlings, with $70,000 in prize money at stake for trainers. All tolled, the Foundation has helped place approximately 1,000 horses since its inception.
The next California Challenge should be in May 2009 and, appropriately, in “Horse Town USA,” Riverside County’s Norco. Foundation spokesperson Julie Bryant says the training focus will be on trail skills, a smart tie-in for the host area. She expects that the Challenge will return to Sacramento’s Horse Expo in 2009, too, and the Foundation plans to expand its program in other states as well.
To voice your opinion and/or ideas to the BLM, leave a message at 800-710-7597 or navigate to the “feedback form” on the Wild Horse & Burro Program portion of www.blm.gov.