By Suzanne Roy, executive director, American Wild Horse Campaign.
Standing quietly in the vastness of the American West, mountains jutting up around you, cradling you in some of the last wild places left, you hear nothing but the whispering of the wind, the singing of the birds, the rustling of the grass, until the quietness is broken and you hear it: the thundering of hooves. The sound is instantly familiar, revealing its source before it can be seen: American wild horses, roaming desolate areas of the West that are too remote for humans.
An American Icon
America’s wild mustangs are one of two animals protected by United States law as important symbols of freedom in our country. The other is the bald eagle.
Congress recognized the importance of wild horses and burros to the American landscape in the 1971 Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act, which designates them as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” This unanimously-passed Act protected these beloved animals and placed responsibility for their management with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency within the Department of the Interior.
A federally mismanaged program
The BLM is failing its mandate of protection and preservation by using an outdated, inhumane and costly method of managing wild horses: helicopter roundups. Each year, the BLM terrifies, traumatizes, rounds up, and removes thousands of wild horses from public lands in the West. The roundups threaten the two things free-roaming wild horses value most: family and freedom.
Most of the captured horses and burros will spend their lives in holding facilities at taxpayer expense. Many will go to long-term pastures where they are separated by gender, while others will stay in short-term holding pens, waiting to be either sold or adopted. Not only are these holding facilities inhumane for wild horses, they also cost American taxpayers $2-5 per day per horse to feed and house them. Currently, more than 53,000 horses and burros are stockpiled off the range.
These roundups are expensive, inhumane, and perpetuate the very problem the BLM is claiming to fix. In 2013, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) completed an impartial review of the BLM’s wild horse and burro management practices and concluded that roundups and removals actually increase population growth through compensatory reproduction. Horses respond to decreases in their population density―a consequence of helicopter roundups and removals―by reproducing at higher than normal rates. The NAS recommended a more scientific approach to wild horse management: implementing fertility control measures that prevent pregnancy and reduce horse populations in the wild.
Yet, eight years after the NAS review, the BLM continues to prioritize roundups, spending 70 percent of its budget to remove and warehouse wild horses and burros, while less than one percent is spent on humane fertility control.