The new year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, and Velma Bronn Johnston, aka Wild Horse Annie, who fought so hard for it to pass, must be rolling over in her grave.
These days, everyone from so-called wild horse advocates to members of Congress and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — the federal agency in charge of safeguarding the animals — are perpetuating a narrative that there are too many wild horses on federal public lands.
But there are not. The real issue is the BLM thinks it is above the law meant to protect them. So, for decades it has prioritized commercializing federal public lands over wild horses, thus obliterating the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.
The meat industry, as well as oil, gas and mineral extraction projects, are fragmenting habitat for wild horses and other wildlife, damaging the environment and contributing to climate change.
As the new administration builds back better, it must do better by America’s wild horses before it is too late. It needs to ensure leadership in federal agencies committed to reexamining the implementation of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act to ensure adequate habitat for wild horses.
Since its passage, wild horses have lost 41 percent of their habitat — more than 20 million acres. Six states have already lost their wild horse populations: Missouri, Iowa, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.
New Mexico, the home state of Rep. Deb Haaland (D), whom President Biden nominated as secretary of the Interior, only has a measly 200 wild horses left. Montana only has a paltry 166. The Equid Specialist Group of IUCN Species Survival Commission recommends minimum populations of 2,500 individuals in continuous areas for the conservation of genetic diversity.
The BLM wishes to round up an additional 50,000 horses, leaving less than 26,000 wild horses on our public lands. This past summer, Reps. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn), Dina Titus (D-Nev.), Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) and Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, filed an amendment to the 2021 appropriations act that would require the BLM to utilize $11 million of its Wild Horse and Burro Program budget to implement fertility control (PZP) to manage wild horse populations.
There is, however, a major problem with BLM’s request to Congress, as well as the proposal to fund mass contraceptive use on wild horses — they simply mask half a century of wild horse mismanagement by the BLM.
It is no wonder members of Congress, such as Haaland, are confused as some advocates push PZP and tout running the world’s largest wild horse birth control darting program in the world.
The truth is there is no evidence that there are too many wild horses on federal public lands. As the National Academy of Sciences reported in 2013, the BLM’s assertions that populations are increasing by some 20 percent or more each year are not based on sound scientific methodology. But cattle are counted, and their numbers are staggering.
Today, upward of 2 million cattle graze public lands, not to mention sheep — compared to a measly 79,568 wild horses.
Of the 245 million acres of public land managed by the BLM, 155 million is open to livestock grazing. By contrast, wild horses are restricted to just 26.9 million acres, which they must share with livestock.
Wild horses, like many native wild animals, can benefit the ecosystem. Wild horses do not decompose the vegetation they ingest as thoroughly as ruminant grazers, such as cattle or sheep, which allows the seeds of many plant species to pass through their digestive tract intact into the soil that the wild horses fertilize by their droppings.
Adding insult to injury, the BLM has launched a new web page celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, and it underscores the agency’s belief wild horses only have value if they can be adopted out, domesticated, trained and paraded around — and that is a national disgrace.
It was recently publicized in the media that the “Wild Spayed Filly Futurity” event 2019 winner was from the South Steens Herd Management Area in Oregon, and our hearts sank because a staff member visited there in 2016.
She remembers seeing wild horse bands interacting and flourishing in their own way, and it was magical. The horses were so present and in tune with each other and the environment — something that should be admired and respected, not destroyed to make room for more doomed cattle and sheep exploited by the meat industry.
She will never forget that a BLM employee at the Burns District office in Oregon told her the best place to see wild horses in Oregon is in the Wild Horse Corral holding prison.
That statement alone says volumes about what the BLM is all about.
The BLM has had 50 years to get wild horse management right. We need new leadership to truly speak for wild horses and new policies that actually protect them.
Priscilla Feral is the president of Friends of Animals.