A horse of a different color

The animated movie, “Spirit: The Stallion of the Cimarron,” has entertained a generation of children. It is the story of a courageous wild horse that gets captured by the Cavalry, then by an Indian, and later by a nasty railroad — all of whom fail to tame him.

Such wild horse stories have been popular with audiences for decades, including classics like “The Black Stallion,” “Wild Horse Mesa,” “My Friend Flicka,” and dozens of others. The image of the wild and independent mustang is emotionally powerful.

Americans love the idea of the wild horses, more than we love the animals themselves. That’s why wild horses in the West are among the most controversial issues perennially facing the BLM. There are at least 70,000 horses running wild in the West, and 50,000 more in BLM holding pens. The agency spends upwards of $87 million annually trying to manage wild horses, but it is a losing battle. The number of horses doubles every four years, and the BLM cannot even give them away. They round up 3,000 or more every year to reduce herd size, but only a fraction of those are ever adopted (111 last year) and many are euthanized or sold to rendering plants.

If that last detail sounds unsettling, hold your horses for a minute. The problem with these herds of wild horses is that they decimate rangeland ecosystems that are also vital to native wildlife, particularly deer and elk. In some places, grazing cattle also compete for the same forage, but in several areas where cattle were removed from the range a decade ago, the landscape remains barren because of the horses. The latter are often desperately hungry and eat anything left. Many starve to death every year, so the situation is unsustainable, for the environment and especially for the horses. A National Wild Horse & Burro Advisory Board helps determine the land’s “carrying capacity,” and the number of horses that should be culled annually. Some members consider the situation an emergency.

The 1971 law governing BLM’s wild horse management allows removal of excess horses from the range, selling them at cost, and euthanizing aging or sick horses. At a recent meeting of the advisory board, a strong recommendation to do exactly those things shocked and horrified some observers, and greatly relieved others.

Almost immediately, as reported in Range Magazine, “horse activists implemented their public relations machine, social media lit on fire, emails flew through the ether, and all hope of saving public lands, the fragile ecosystems, the customs of multiple use, economies, and private property rights disintegrated behind cries to ‘save the horses.’ ” Such emotion is misplaced.

The term “wild horse” is a misunderstanding. They are more accurately understood as escaped horses. The tradition is that they descended from horses that escaped hundreds of years ago from Spanish conquistadors. In fact, nearly all of them descend from horses that escaped much more recently. A few horses, for instance, released during the Depression by a DeBeque rancher who could not afford to feed them, are the ancestors of many horses now roaming the Western Slope.

The horses’ ancestry is controversial, because horses were once native to the West. Fossil remains prove that they migrated to Asia and Europe from North America, about the same time the first humans migrated the other direction, two to three million years ago. Those ancient American horses went extinct about 12,000 years ago. There have been several other sub-species of horses, zebras, and donkeys over the millennia, most of them now extinct, and it remains a topic of discussion among paleontologists how different the modern horse is from the Yukon horse last known in North America.

One recent study questions whether there is any difference at all, but most scientists, and government policies, rely on the conclusions of many studies over the past 50 years of numerous ancient animal species that are now extinct. Wildlife officials are supposed to do what they can to protect and preserve native species, and they generally do a good job. But the BLM herds are a horse of a different color. They are not native, they destroy habitat, and they are not thriving. Elimination might be the most humane solution.

Most of us dislike cruelty to animals. More than once I heard my Grandma express the opinion that all men were destined for hell because of the way they treated horses. Surely, we can do better for these poor animals than leave them in the desert to starve.

Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of “Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back.” He is a Western Slope native.


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Thanks for publiching this article on “wild” horse issue.  I totally agree that the BLM is currently letting the horses do significant environmental damage in many areas.  Northwest Colorado has several Herd Management Areas that are more than double the population than what the area will support.  Other states such as Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming have areas where there are five to ten times more horses than the land will support and those are the areas where the land is so degraded that it may never recover and the horses are starving to death.  When horses are starving on the range, the wildlife have already left the area or died, there has been no livestock there for many years, and of course the soil and watershed health is destroyed.
My hope is that Colorado does not get into the same situation that these other states are with 5 - 10 times more horses than the land (Herd Management Areas) can support.  Population numbers double every four to five years and if BLM continues the current management of restricting the number of removals to only 3,000 per year (nationally), Colorado will have 3 – 4 times the number of horses in the Piceance Basin and Sand Wash areas than the land can support by 2021.  Our arid rangelands cannot support that!
Greg is correct in many of the numbers presented but there are a few corrections I would like to offer.  BLM is rounding up approximately 3,000 per year.  Unfortunately, there are 14,000+ being born every year (on national scale) so the number on the range is estimated to be nearly 77,000 horses and burros as of this spring.  The annual adoption numbers are around 2,500 - 3,000 in total.  I am assuming the 111 number is what BLM is adopting out themselves.  BLM contracts with other groups and spends $5 - $7 million a year trying to get people to adopt them so they don’t have to leave them on the range or place them in holding with the others, that are already costing the taxpayers $50,000,000 (yes million) per year, to feed and care for them.
The other correction is that BLM IS NOT euthanizing or sending horses to rendering plants.  The fact that they ARE NOT doing this is precisely the reason there are 45,000+ horses in holding facilities costing the taxpayer $50 million per year.
The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act requires BLM to remove excess (those above the number in which the range can support) horses from the range, offer them for adoption three times, and those passed up for adoption must be sold (unrestricted sale). However, Congress has an appropriations rider that prohibits BLM from following that Act.  That rider says they can NOT sell them “for commercial purposes”. 
This is the whole reason we now have nearly 100,000 excess horses that will either destroy the rangelands or cost taxpayers Billions of dollars to feed and care for them. 
I encourage all to visit http://www.wildhorserange.com for more information.

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