Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) launched roundup plans for 700 wild horses from two of Wyoming’s free-ranging herds.
Backing ranching and business interests, the BLM intends to cull nearly 70% of Sweetwater County’s herds to support what advocates are calling an ecologically responsible management of Wyoming’s land and natural resources.
Conservationists, equine enthusiasts, and Westerners, who value the roaming horses as symbols of American heritage, are leading the opposition, citing mismanagement and animal cruelty among other BLM offenses.
Since the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act by Congress in 1971, wild horses and burros have been protected by law to roam freely through designated areas of the American West.
The law states: “Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene.”
The law charges the Secretary of the Interior with protecting these animals and their range lands as “sanctuaries for their protection and preservation.” To that end, it affords the BLM the authority to determine the amount of land necessary to sustain free-roaming herds, with the goal of maintaining the land’s “thriving natural ecological balance.”
The legislation also advises authorities to respect the government’s multiple-use mission of accommodating various uses of public land while preserving the integrity of its resources.
In so stipulating overpopulation as just cause for the removal of horses and burros from their natural habitats, the legislation has allowed ranchers to capitalize upon an ecological imbalance that they disingenuously attribute to horses in order to lobby the BLM to cull the herds.
Cattle and sheep overgrazing have degenerated the quality of public range lands to the detriment of the very ranchers who are responsible for its condition. By blaming relatively small, free-roaming horse herds for overgrazing and ecological imbalances, the ranchers have managed to persuade the government to remove the horses, securing even more land for their livestock to use exclusively.
In efforts to thwart the round ups, opposition groups have stressed that horse herds are allocated only two to three percent of forage in these herd management areas, while the remaining majority is already reserved for livestock.
Revered legal analyst Andrew Cohen makes the compelling point that, “even though cattle and sheep outnumber wild horses on public lands by at least a ten-to-one margin, the BLM largely blames the horses for roiling the resources of the range…The BLM grades the wild horses harshly for their impact on the range. But it does not appear to grade the cattle and sheep for the impact they bear upon it…The BLM is focusing upon the two percent that is relatively easy to fix rather than upon the 98 percent which is not. The reason is not hard to fathom. The ranchers have a powerful lobby. The horses do not.”
Further, a new, independent field review conducted by range scientist Robert Edwards, formerly of the BLM, presents scientific evidence the horses are not to blame for the degeneration of the land and shrubbery.
He concluded that “the wild horses do not need to be removed in order to achieve the goal of a thriving natural ecological balance,” and further, that “removing the wild horses will not achieve that goal.”
While the lands observed in his study were reported to be in only fair grazing condition, Edwards found that “removing a large percentage of the wild horses is not likely to result in an improvement of range condition since the percentage of forage allocated to wild horses is very small compared to the amount of forage allocated to livestock.”
His findings indicate that better management of livestock grazing patterns will help to restore ecological balance in those areas.
As Suzanne Roy of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign reminds us: “Congress deemed wild horses to be worthy of protection as national symbols of freedom whose presence on Western public lands is an important part of our history and heritage. The Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act designated the lands where wild horses were found in 1971 as habitat to be managed principally but not exclusively for wild horses.
“The BLM has turned this mandate on it head by allocating the majority of resources in federally designated wild horse areas to private livestock and not wild horses. The multiple use mandate does not require livestock grazing and it certainly does not require the imbalance of resource allocation that exists today.
“If the BLM wants to live up to its mandate to protect and preserve America’s wild horses then it will begin to address the inequities of resource allocation on the small amount of BLM lands on which wild horses reside. It will also shift resources away from the current costly and cruel roundup, remove and stockpile strategy toward on-the-range management of wild horses, utilizing cost-effective and humane fertility control strategies where necessary.”
With compelling arguments such as Roy’s and scientific refutations like Edwards’s, wild horse enthusiasts still have some leverage in their fight against their powerful ranching adversaries. Yet, with the round up already underway, hundreds of horses are already at risk of slaughter if procured by the wrong people in the adoption process.
The wild horses of the West are quickly vanishing, despite laws in place to protect them. Help force the necessary policy changes by signing the petition, “Save Wyoming’s Wild Horses from Slaughter.”
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