Wild horses symbolize US freedom

The image of hundreds of wild horses freely roaming the open terrain in the American West is reminiscent of times past and our country’s trailblazing heritage. However, on July 10, the 200 wild horses galloping frantically across a breathtaking Nevada plain, with dust swirling around their sweaty bodies, were running in fear. With dry summer heat reaching 95 degrees, these horses were forced to run for miles over rough volcanic rock in an attempt to escape the government’s low-flying helicopter in pursuit. It is foaling season and many of the mares and foals were weak from their recent pregnancy or from giving birth.               

The offending helicopter was part of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) effort to round-up and relocate 1,200 of our nation’s wild mustangs from this area. It is just one of dozens of planned roundups to permanently remove and relocate thousands of our wild horses.          

The BLM states that the wild horse population is expanding rapidly, and it needs to relocate these animals to prevent the exhaustion of the region’s resources. The BLM has been stating this for more than a decade now, but has yet to implement a sound management plan.  In 1971, when the National Wild Horse and Burro Program was created, there were 54 million acres for wild horse and burros. Now, only 27 acres remain. And in every year since the BLM was entrusted with this program, populations have exceeded the agency’s appropriate management level by thousands of animals, reaching over 60,000 at one point. Enough is enough. It is time to find a more effective management plan for these horses that does not result in the careless death of so many.           

As a result of the July 10 and July 11 roundups, 13 mustangs died.  Although horse advocates fought for a suspension of the roundups, their efforts were overruled and they continued the next weekend. The death toll now stands at 17.  

The bloody tale of the recent roundups in Nevada is not unique. Last winter, during the 40-day BLM Calico Hills Roundup, the government captured 1,800 horses and about 80 died, some during the roundup and others at the holding facilities. Additionally, dozens of pregnant mares suffered miscarriages.           

A report issued in April 2010 by the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign found 43 percent of the deaths that resulted from the winter Calico roundup were due to diet and metabolic failure that was brought on by stress and trauma. 

Currently, more than 32,000 horses have already been removed from the ranges and are being forced into overcrowded and inhumane holding facilities. Not only is this not a safe or desirable solution for the animals, but also it is costing the American taxpayers more than $30 million a year. There are an estimated 37,000 mustangs and burros that live in our Western states. We now have nearly that amount in custody, and the BLM plans to remove an additional 12,000 wild horses from the ranges at a cost of millions to the American taxpayer. 

The actions of the BLM are contrary to The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971’s original intent to manage the wild horses and burros in their natural state and to protect them from capture and harassment. I have repeatedly called for an end to these roundups until a more humane and cost-effective solution has been put in place. The Obama administration should be ashamed that this is happening under its watch.   

Congress took an important step forward last year when the Interior Appropriations Bill, at my request, directed the BLM to develop a new comprehensive long-term plan for wild horse populations by September 30. I was joined by Congressmen Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) and Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) in writing to Director Bob Abbey of the BLM urging a moratorium on the roundups that have caused so many horses unnecessary pain and suffering. We are making long-overdue progress, but more must be done.            

The wild mustangs are living symbols of our country’s history and pioneering spirit. Anyone who has had the privilege of watching a wild herd graze freely and calmly understands what majestic animals these wild mustangs truly are. It is hard to fathom that hundreds of our wild horses have died at the hands of the federal agency entrusted to protect them. I will continue to urge the BLM to stop the inhumane roundups and work to find a better legislative solution.  Letting the death toll of America’s mustangs continue to rise is simply not an option.

Sen. Landrieu is the senior senator from Louisiana.