The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rumor has it the government is going to kill 45,000 horses. Here’s the reality.

Wild horses escape the Bureau of Land Management gather trap south of Garrison, Utah, in 2015. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)
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You may have seen the alarming headlines while scrolling through your Facebook feed this week: The U.S. government planned to kill 45,000 wild horses, according to sources including Drudge Report, the Dodo and the India Times. Some sites, including VegNews, said the kill order had been made to create room for beef farms.

This was not true. The feds do not plan to kill the majestic symbols of the American West — not anytime soon, anyway. In response to uproar, the Bureau of Land Management, the custodian of wild horses and burros, said in a statement Wednesday that it is “committed to having healthy horses on healthy range lands” and would “continue to care for and seek good homes for animals that have been removed from the range. The BLM does not and will not euthanize healthy animals.”

But the misconceptions that prompted the statement had some basis in reality. The bureau’s wild horse and burro advisory board, a nine-member volunteer body that makes no binding decisions, did recommend last week that the bureau sell or euthanize the “unadoptable” animals among the 45,000 wild horses in government holding corrals. Officials said Wednesday that the bureau would respond at the board’s next meeting in six months. If it endorsed the idea, Congress would have to approve it. Advocacy groups would no doubt file lawsuits to stop it — and the public outcry would be unimaginable.

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Yet the recommendation, made by people with a lot of horse- and nature-loving credentials, has served as a flare, drawing attention to an enormous problem long wrangled over by many passionate parties. Depending on who’s describing it, America’s wild horses are the victims of too little funding, chronic mismanagement by the bureau, or government prioritization of livestock over free-roaming equines. But pretty much everyone agrees it’s a problem — and some board members said the euthanasia recommendation was meant in part as a cry for help.

What’s the problem?  

The issue has roots in the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. Congress passed it after slaughter of wild equines had led to a drop in population, and it gave their protection and control to the bureau, an agency whose mission is to sustain public lands. The horses are prolific breeders, and their numbers rebounded to the point that the bureau for decades has used helicopters to round up excess horses.

The BLM now houses about 45,000 in holding corrals and pastures — a practice that costs $50,000 per animal, $50 million a year and accounts for 65 percent of the bureau’s Wild Horse and Burro Program budget, according to agency figures. But there are still nearly 70,000 wild horses “on the range,” or nearly three times more than the government says the land can support. Horses are not native to North America, and some conservationists say their grazing is terribly degrading the land.

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Horse advocates say there aren’t too many horses and that the bureau inflates the numbers, that the animals don’t have enough land and that they’re rounded up to make space for cattle. The bureau calls this “totally false” and says they’re removed only to keep the land healthy.

The bureau says it doesn’t have the budget to solve the problem and hints that it wishes it didn’t have to. “This is the only species that the Bureau of Land Management has responsibility for,” bureau director Neil Kornze told members of Congress this week. “Normal wildlife is managed by governors” or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he said.

Several solutions have been proposed over the years, but they seem to have led to more arguments. Some animal advocates, including the Humane Society of the United States, say an injectable contraception called PZP is the way to keep horse populations down, and some advisory board members say more volunteers need to be trained and deployed to administer it. But another animal advocacy group has filed a lawsuit arguing it has adverse side effects. Another idea was spaying mares. The bureau nixed that plan last week in response to another lawsuit that called the method inhumane.

Another tool is adopting out the horses, which the bureau does — but not nearly at the rate necessary. Around 2,000 to 2,500 horses have been adopted each year in recent years, a number easily replaced by foal births. (If you want to adopt a wild horse or burro, find out how here.)

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What did the board recommend — and why? 

In a blog post on the vote, board member Ben Masters, a young Texan who made a documentary about adopting wild mustangs and riding them from Mexico to Canada, said the precise recommendation was to offer “all suitable animals in long and short term holding deemed unadoptable for sale without limitation or humane euthanasia. Those animals deemed unsuitable for sale should then be destroyed in the most humane manner possible.”

Outrage ensued. “The agency is focusing on mass killing of these national icons,” the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign said. In a congressional hearing Wednesday, Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) asked Kornze to “reassure my constituents” that the “completely unacceptable proposal of slaughter or sale” was nonbinding.

In his blog post, Masters described the recommendation as a response to an “emergency” of horse overgrazing that will have “devastating effects that can last far beyond my lifetime.” He described the board’s visit to an area in Nevada that is home to more than 3,000 horses, or well over 10 times what the government says the land can support. It was rife with invasive plants that horses and wildlife can’t eat, he wrote, and practically devoid of water. Fred Woehl, an Arkansas horse trainer and educator who chairs the advisory board, said in an interview Thursday that the group saw horse carcasses near a dried-up watering hole.

“Wild horses are causing severe range land degradation in some areas. This isn’t an ‘if.’ This is a fact,” Masters wrote. He said he believed other options — such as wide-scale selling of horses, giving them more public land or sterilization — were either inhumane or would be stopped by activists or Congress. Doing nothing, he wrote, would lead to horse starvation and habitat destruction.

Woehl said that the “main premise” of the recommendation was to adopt out as many horses as possible and only euthanize older ones for which homes couldn’t be found. He acknowledged that “sale without limitation” could mean some horses might end up at slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada (none exist in the United States).

“The ones that voted for it voted for it just to bring it to a head, that we had to do something. We couldn’t just sit on our hands anymore,” Woehl said. “There’s nobody on that board that wants to get rid of the horses.”

Woehl said he’s received threats since the vote. Masters wrote that he’d gotten 500 hate emails — but he hoped it would be worth it.

“We’re hoping Congress sees our recommendation and thinks, ‘Oh, damn, this is really, really bad,'” Masters told National Geographic Adventure. “Then maybe they’ll give the BLM extra funding to open more public lands for wild horses and burros, to buy seed to rehabilitate the native range land, and to expand the use of humane contraception to slow population growth.”

The sole dissenting vote came from Ginger Kathrens, executive director of the Cloud Foundation, a Colorado-based wild horse advocacy organization. In an interview with Horse Nation, she said she feared the mass killing could happen because it might actually be easier than finding another solution. But she expressed hope it would get the public more involved with wild horses, which she said have become scapegoats for overgrazing committed by livestock.

The contraceptive PZP, Kathrens argued, needs to be aggressively used “so we can achieve zero population growth.”

“Yes, it will take a lot of hard work — it will take a lot of volunteers to be out there in the field,” she said. “But we have over 100 volunteer trained darters — myself included — who are not in places they need to be because the BLM has not used the resource.”

What’s next? 

The bureau’s statement strongly suggests it won’t endorse the euthanasia recommendation. If the past is any guide, things will stay status quo — which no one is happy with, and which Masters and Woehl argue would be disastrous.

“With the lack of water, I would say at least 10 or 15 percent of the horses are going to die in the next 12 months,” Woehl said. “This is not a cattle versus horse issue. This is an animal versus environment or range issue. I wouldn’t care if they were buffalo, if they were deer or if they were geese. The range is in bad, bad shape.”

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