Bowing to sustained pressure from American citizens and a growing number of lawmakers, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced in May that it would meaningfully reduce the number of wild horses and burros captured from our federal lands through its inhumane helicopter roundup campaign – pledging to halve its 2021 goal of removing 20,000 horses and burros a year from our public lands. At the same time, the agency said it would expand the use of fertility control in managing herds on the range to compensate for the reduction in direct removals.
As a consequence of the obscure federal agency’s unyielding roundups, there are now more than 50,000 wild horses in government-run and -financed captive holding facilities, with the leasing and feeding and personnel costs cannibalizing more than half of the agency’s budget for the wild horse and burro management. For years, the Center for a Humane Economy and other wild horse and burro advocates told the agency it was spending its money recklessly, along with subverting the federal law written to protect the animals on the range, with its cowboy-culture, roundup-and-removal scheme to depopulate wild horses from the West and replace them with millions of cattle and sheep.
BLM is finally recognizing we’ve been right all along on the economic flaws in their execution of wild horse and burro management. The agency doesn’t have the funds or infrastructure in place to care for the large numbers of captive wild horses and burros who have a lifespan of up to 30 years. Recently, in Canon City, Colorado, nearly 150 horses succumbed from infectious diseases on overcrowded and poorly maintained holding facilities. Similarly, horses have died from a strangles outbreak at the holding facility in Wheatland, Wyoming; last summer, the BLM released horses suffering from pigeon fever, a highly contagious infectious disease, back onto the Onaqui range in Utah after rounding them up by helicopter. If these animals had been kept in the wide-open spaces in the wild, these disease outbreaks would never have occurred, as they did in the feedlot conditions of the agency’s holding facilities.
With the agency still planning on rounding up 10,000 wild horses and burros this year – a level that is also unsustainable and reckless – it’s plain that the BLM’s modest course correction is not about benevolence for the horses. The agency’s conduct has long been a classic example of government capture by private industry. BLM removes horses to allow below-cost grazing of cattle and sheep to eat grass, erode the land, and leave their waste on arid western lands. This announcement is an implicit admission that the agency cannot sustain this program even as Congress has acceded to the BLM’s requests and thrown more money at BLM’s failed mass roundup strategies. BLM operates with little accountability to the public or the Congress, and its implementation of the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act is clearly at odds with the original intent of the law.
Fierce Public Opposition
The agency has not been paying heed to a recent poll that showed over 80 percent opposition among the public to the use of helicopters in wild horse and burro management. Its May 10 announcement that “wild horse and burro gathers have a very high success rate and serious injuries are exceedingly rare” is a glaring example of more BLM gaslighting. We still have fresh in our minds the images of foals left behind in the Sand Wash Basin roundup, the black colt with the broken leg forced to flee the BLM helicopter on three legs in the Pancake Complex roundup, and horses knocked down by the helicopter and chased headlong into barbwire in the Antelope Complex roundup.
The BLM proudly touts its humane “handling standards,” but these standards don’t seem to be applied in any meaningful way in the field. Concerns over animal welfare aren’t just knee-jerk fretting by wild horse advocates; the images of injured and exhausted horses fleeing before the choppers support our contentions in very practical ways.
BLM has not corrected the key false premise of its management strategy: that 80,000 horses and burros inhabiting 200 million acres of federal land in the West amounts to overpopulation. The wild equids are outnumbered on their designated habitats by cattle and sheep by 40 to 1, with the cattle and sheep numbers specifically authorized by BLM. In fact, the BLM’s own data compiled by Western Watersheds Project and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility underscore that most of the lands managed for grazing by the BLM are in a state of serious disrepair, and that it is commercial livestock, not wild equids, causing the damage.
As we confront the realities of climate change and the consequences of persistent drought across the western U.S., it may be necessary to control the growth of the equine population to maximize the forage and water sources the wild equids and other wildlife rely on. Field-tested fertility control that is safe and reversible has demonstrable merit and works well on other animal populations, including western wild horse and burro herds when applied in a careful and thoughtful way. But expanding fertility control shouldn’t take the place of a more fundamental paradigm shift that errs on the side of reducing livestock grazing and restoring the primacy of American horse and burro herds on their assigned Herd Management Areas.
The BLM is out of touch with the harm done to wild horses and burros and other wildlife by its unrelenting work to enable and promote cattle and sheep grazing on public lands. The American people want wild herds of equids protected, not maligned, persecuted, and mistreated by the very agency entrusted to implement the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. When he signed the federal law in 1971, President Nixon lauded its purposes. “With the depletion [of wild horses and burros] continuing apace, immediate and effective measures are clearly needed to prevent the complete extermination of the wild breeds – and with it the death of part of the frontier spirit,” noted the President in his signing statement.
The federal law protecting wild horses and burros is one of only two laws that name species and that was written to protect them. The BLM lost its sense on wild equid management a long time ago, and it’s past due to rein in a rogue agency that has become an agent in the destruction rather than the preservation of these wild animals. The agency’s recent announcement about a reduction in roundups is only a good first step. At the same time, Congress must reset its spending priorities and oversight in its work with BLM, so that we may all see wild horses and burros roaming our western lands in safety and security.
Podcast: Debunking BLM Myths
You can hear Beckstead and investigative journalist Vickery Eckhoff discuss the BLM and its campaign of mistruths in this recent episode of the Animal Wellness Podcast. They take a critical, no-holds-barred look at the agency set the record straight its claims with the facts.