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An Unnecessary Evil: The Politics of Wild Horse Roundups

Source: Terry Fitch Photography

The mustang is an iconic symbol of the American West. The horses roam the protected mountains of ten U.S. states with a spirit that makes them legendary. You can even “adopt a living legend” yourself, courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Land Management. What’s concerning, however, is the BLM’s roundups of wild horses, a miles-long helicopter chase that sends the horses into frenzied gallops. Though the BLM argues that growing horse populations and its negative ecological consequences make this program necessary, the BLM helicopters are driven by politics, and the program is not a necessary evil, but rather just plain evil.

The BLM passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971 as a way to preserve a shrinking mustang population. These mustangs live on Herd Management Areas, or HMAs, which cover 31.6 million acres from Montana to California. Since horses constantly move to find food or water, to evade predators, and to bypass or find other bands of horses, there are no areas specifically allocated to mustangs, because they are impossible to fence in. States like Wyoming and Colorado abide by “fence out” laws, an agreement made by ranchers that cattle can graze freely, and if individuals wish to contain their animals, it is their own burden to do so. Many ranchers choose not to fence in their cattle, leading to the mixing of wild horses and privately owned livestock. Public and private lands are thus difficult to distinguish.

Since then, BLM programs have begun focusing on removal of mustangs rather than preservation, with the argument that there are excess horses that cannot be properly managed. According to a lawsuit filed by a powerful Wyoming corporation in 2011, one public rangeland use is providing grazing areas for privately owned livestock. The Rock Springs Grazing Association (RSGA) asked the BLM to remove wild horses from private grazing lands located along federal HMAs. However, half of the outlined area, which covers 2 million acres, is publicly owned, and thousands of RSGA livestock graze on these lands. The supposed conflict between the horses and cattle lies in resource scarcity, and ranchers, concerned with their cattle and the profitability of their businesses, falsely accuse horses of taking the valuable feeding resources.

While it is true that mustangs enter privately owned areas, private livestock actually does most of its grazing on public land. Due to Wyoming’s “fence out” law, RSGA livestock owners should be responsible for fencing in their cattle. And mustangs are vastly outnumbered: the RSGA has up to 70,000 sheep and 5,000 cattle on Wyoming’s Checkerboard lands, while there are less than 2,000 horses. These statistics make clear that horses are easily a minority, invalidating claims that horses are taking resources. Throughout the other public grazing areas in the United States, horses are allocated just 17%, while livestock are given the remaining land.

However, the BLM complied, and is currently in the process of removing the mustangs. The BLM has caved to the RGSA’s successful negotiation in the past, offering a lease on public lands for 1/12th of the market rate. Furthermore, these actions benefit more than just the cattle industry; horses are also being removed from areas in Colorado that have natural mining resources.

With private interests in mind, the BLM’s roundups are far from humane. BLM roundups occur from late summer to late fall. Helicopters descend into areas where mustangs are spotted with the aim of chasing the horses into the direction of traps. Most wild horses have not had direct contact with humans or machines, but even for those who have been caught before, the experience is no doubt terrifying. The mustangs are stampeded for miles and miles towards the BLM’s target area, and the frightened horses fall or run into each other, sometimes leading to fatal injuries. The advocacy group Wild Horse Education posted a shocking Youtube video in 2011 of a BLM helicopter physically pushing an exhausted horse with its skids. Trained horses are ridden into panicked herds to lead the mustangs to their fate: cramped metal pens that forever separate them from freedom and their families.

But the anguish doesn’t end there for the mustangs: nearly 50,000 horses are permanently kept in BLM holding facilities, outnumbering the 32,000 mustangs that exist in the wild. Ideally, the horses would be trained and adopted out, but not enough people are adopting, and it is getting increasingly expensive to keep the horses in captivity. The program is clearly not only unsustainable, but also treats these animals with unnecessary cruelty.

Options other than terrorizing horses do exist, but the more simple answer lies in rethinking the reason for the roundups. One viable option, encouraged by many wild horse advocates, is a reversible and temporary sterilization drug that can be administered without roundups. The process by which the BLM decides how many horses are excessive remains extremely vague. BLM claims its actions are necessary to maintain a balance with other public rangeland resources and uses. The BLM claims that horses are taking too much water and food, but it is virtually impossible considering the large number of privately owned livestock grazing on the same pubic land. As filmmaker Ginger Kathrens aptly stated, “it’s time wild horses are protected against big government-subsidized businesses.” If powerful corporations continue to push for more land, the BLM, which shrugged its shoulders and surrendered in the Checkerboard Lands case, may agree to let mustang land continuously shrink in the future. Under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, the government is obliged to protect the mustang population of the United States, and that’s how it should stay.

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