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BLM Wants To Kill Captured Mustangs

By July 11, 2008

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Photo: Getty Images
The Bureau of Land Management wants to "(1) sell older and certain other unadopted animals 'without limitation' to any willing buyers and (2) euthanize those wild horses and burros for which no adoption demand exists" in order to bring its budget into balance. As AZ Central reports, this means "euthanizing some 33,000 horses that have already been rounded up and are currently being held in long-term facilities."

Historically, both of these acts have been prohibited by law.

Deadline Fri 11 July
BLM is taking comments on the Draft Herd Management Area Plan for the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, home of “Cloud,” a stallion featured in a 2001 PBS documentary by film maker Ginger Kathrens. The plan would cull the herd to 90-120 animals, well below recommended levels for genetic diversity. Find out how to comment.

In 2004, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) authored an amendment to the 2005 Omnibus Appropriations Bill -- known as the Burns rider -- that "gutted a 34-year-old ban on selling wild horses and burros for slaughter." This one-page rider -- No. 142 -- was part of a 3,300 page bill. There were no hearings or debate on this amendment, submitted on the eve of the vote, that turned the 1971 enabling legislation on its head.

Welcome to how your Congress makes law.

At the time, Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY) said:

The thing that is so damaging about this Conrad Burns amendment is that he passed it on an appropriations bill that no one knew about.… It is precisely the way the legislative process should not work. I don't know his motivations, but more than likely he was protecting the ranchers who have leased those lands [for cattle and sheep grazing].

In 2005, the Rahall/Whitfield Wild Horse Amendment would have repudiated the Burns rider and reaffirmed the prohibition on BLM selling protected wild horses and burros for slaughter. It passed the House but was blocked in the Senate by the appropriations subcommittee for the Department of the Interior ... chaired by then-Sen. Burns. Subsequently, Rep. Rahall (D-WV) and Rep. Whitfield introduced the amendment in 2007 as H.R. 249. Demonstrating once again there may be little difference in a Democratic and Republican Congress, it has not moved out of committee.

Critics of the 30 June announcement insist that the overpopulation in holding pens is self-inflicted: in 2001, BLM increased its capture budget by 50% "with no long-term plan" for what to do with the additional animals. Moreover, BLM is keeping herd size below recommended levels for genetic diversity. Only about one quarter of the herds under active management have a BLM stated population objective of more than 150 animals; the scientific recommendation is 150-200.

BLM has published an online form to take feedback on the proposal. Here's my feedback:

I am opposed to the proposal to kill horses and burros in captivity. I support managing the wild horse and burro populations in accordance with scientific recommendations for genetic diversity: that is, in herd sizes of approximately 200. I support raising the cattle (commercial livestock) grazing fee for 2009, at a minimum, to a number that reflects inflation, which would be approximately $2.60 AUM for 2008 instead of $1.35.

Background
BLM is charged with managing the "removal and disposal of excess wild free-roaming horses and burros which pose a threat to themselves and their habitat." Currently, BLM estimates it has rounded up more than 30,000 wild horses and burros -- animals that it has to feed and shelter. Rising feed costs -- in part the result of Bush Administration policy on biofuels -- are the justification.

Congress passed -- and President Nixon signed -- the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971, directing the BLM to protect, manage and control wild horses and burros. The law stemmed from efforts in the 1950s by Velma B. Johnston ("Wild Horse Annie") to stop "ruthless and indiscriminate manner" harvesting. In other words, they were rounded up and slaughtered for dog food.

The law's preamble (pdf) prohibits BLM from facilitating the death of these animals:

Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.

In 2006, BLM reported about 31,000 wild horses in five states: 13,384 in Nevada; 4,615 in Wyoming; 3,166 in California; 2,545 in Utah; and 2,113 in Oregon. The wild horse and burro numbers are insignificant in the overall data: the consensus in 2005 was that there are more than 4 million head of livestock and 3 million big-game animals grazing on public land.


Four wild yearling fillies from the Oregon rangelands graze at the Spokane fairgrounds as the BLM prepares for a wild horse and burro adoption 13 May 2005 in Spokane. Photo: Getty Images

Adoption Program
Since 1973, the BLM has adopted out about 100,000 wild horses and burros. Between 5,000 and 10,000 animals are available for adoption each year. An online auction is currently underway for a handful of horses in four locations. Since 1997, the adoption fee has been $125 per horse or burro and $250 for a paired mare and foal.

Over the years, the BLM has reduced the number of herd management areas from 303 to 201, removing 12.5 million acres of the 47 million acres allocated for wild horses and burros by the 1971 Act. Despite the glut in holding pens, BLM plans to remove another 4,000 horses by this fall. Today, there are reportedly fewer than 30,000 wild horses and burros remaining on public lands. One consequence: increased land available for grazing cattle.

Multi-Purpose Land Use: Cattle Grazing
BLM manages public lands for multiple uses. One of those uses is livestock grazing, initially authorized by the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. In 1986, the grazing fee was set at a minimum of $1.35 per animal unit month (AUM). In 1990, the grazing fee was $1.81 per AUM; in 1996, the fee was $1.61 per AUM. The grazing fee for 2008 is $1.35 per AUM, the same level as it was in 2007. In 1986 dollars, today's fee is equivalent to $2.66.

In other words, in real dollars, in 1986 it cost a rancher about twice as much to graze an animal than it does today. In nominal dollars, it cost about 20% more to feed an animal in 1996 than today and about 34% more to feed an animal in 1990 than today. The BLM has the authority to increase grazing fees by up to 25% from year-to-year, per a Reagan-era executive order. However, there is no indication that this is being considered as a means of increasing the agency's budget.

Critics of this program assert that the public is heavily subsidizing cattle grazing on public lands. The Rangeland Reform 1994 Draft Environmental Impact Statement, for example, reported that the fair market value of the public lands open to grazing range ranged from a low of $5.72/AUM in Arizona to a high of $17.00/AUM in Nebraska.

In 1983, the federal government lost more than $41 million on grazing cattle. Estimates are that less than 3% of the cattle raised in the US are raised on public land.

A 1999 report in the San Jose Mercury News showed that the top 10 percent of grazing permit holders controlled 65 percent of BLM land. These are not "family ranchers" -- one of the largest permit holders is privately-owned J.R. Simplot, which supplies most of the French fries sold by McDonald's. The firm had $3.3 billion in sales in 2006. Simplot was one of the richest men in America; he died earlier this year at age 99. Another major permit holder: the Hilton Family Trust.

According to the BLM, the number of animals being grazed under permit is declining and is less than the agency would allow under permit. In fiscal 2007, the number of AUMs on BLM-managed land was 6.8 million, compared to 7.8 million AUMs in fiscal 2006. In 2007, the agency would have permitted almost twice as many AUMs as it did: 12.6 million.

In another example of the controversy surrounding the grazing program, three consecutive studies have shown that cattle grazing is harming the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument near Ashland, OR. Only 11 ranchers graze on the land, bringing in $2,000 a year to the federal budget. The cost of fencing to protect the streams and plant life: $4 million.

Finally, critics charge that little has changed since a 1990 GAO report (pdf) that concluded “… the primary cause of the degradation in rangeland resources is poorly managed domestic (primarily cattle and sheep) livestock.”

Alternatives To Slaughter
Another wild horse home made famous by Marguerite Henry (Misty of Chincoteague) uses a contraceptive vaccine (PZP) developed with the help of the Humane Society to control population. In 2004, the USGS reported (pdf) that $7.7 million could be saved annually using contraception.

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Comments

July 11, 2008 at 4:24 pm
(1) MJNYC says:

It is beyond my comprehension how anyone can condone the incompetence of the BLM. Henri Bisson and all those responsible for the lack of planning for the horses, should be fired on the spot.

They have 30,000 horses in holding facilities and no plan for their future, but yet they want to round up more wild horses.

Remove the cattle from the land that the taxpayers own and return the horses to that land.

I believe that it’s been made very clear by American citizens that we no longer have faith in the BLM to properly handle the management of our wild horses.

I cannot imagine why the BLM feels the necessity to control herds of horses, when there are 6 million cattle grazing on that land where the horses belong.

I wonder if anyone knows why the BLM plans to continue with this idiotic plan.

July 12, 2008 at 8:00 am
(2) Frank Mancuso says:

100 years ago we had no oil and horses. 100 years from now we will have no oil or horses.

July 12, 2008 at 8:03 am
(3) Robert says:

While it is true that BLM’s upper administrators have, under the Bush administration, “tailored” the Wild Horse and Burro rescue program to cater to the wishes of the cattle industry, it is unfair and unkind to the men and women of the BLM who actually run the Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Program to say that they “Want” to kill any of these animals. Their goal remains as always — compassionate and qualified adoption, not destruction.

Robert

July 14, 2008 at 10:54 am
(4) Reg says:

While this article does a fairly good job of highlighting one side of the issue, it neglects the fact that very few people have the means to adopt these animals esp. in light of high fule and feed issues. Perhaps there could be a herd transplanted in Central Park to live out their lives? Then NYC could do their part. Another key point is the rampant habitat damage impacting threatened species and other wildlife. Pretty hard to do your research and get all the facts from the internet…isn’t it!

July 14, 2008 at 1:56 pm
(5) uspolitics says:

Hi,Reg –

Re your point about feed/costs: then why didn’t BLM have a plan when they decided that more than half of the wild mustangs and burros in the country should be in PENS not in the wild? It was BML that doubled its capture budget.

Re your point about critters damaging the environment:
– 30,000 ponies v 4 million head of cattle
Can you honestly look at those data and say that HORSES are the problem?

July 16, 2008 at 2:48 am
(6) Stan says:

I live in Nevada, the state having far more wild horses and burros than any other. I think my article may shed some additional light on the matter: http://renotahoe.about.com/od/nevadapubliclands/a/wildhorses.htm. It is my experience that the BLM employees who actually do the work of managing these animals are not interested in killing them off. Don’t condemn the whole agency because of bad politics at the top.

July 17, 2008 at 6:57 pm
(7) uspolitics says:

To Stan and Robert — thanks for the reminder that folks on the ground are not necessarily represented by folks at the top.

That said, the folks at the top want to kill animals that they captured without, it appears, a plan to deal with captured animals.

I also find it an affront that they are capturing 10 year olds when lifespans are as long as 30 years — they are removing pack leadership, which is a different recipe for disaster. :-/

July 17, 2008 at 7:05 pm
(8) uspolitics says:

Stan – in your article you assert, without a citation, that “wild horses and burros can double their herd size every four years.”

I found no such data in my research — which suggests an attrition rate much higher. In one herd, for example only one foal per 28 (IIRC) lived to maturity.

Also, your article does not acknowledge that the BLM decided to double its capture rate — and that the BLM has reduced the number of herd management areas/acres — removing 12.5 million acres of the 47 million acres set aside by Congress.

Finally, your article does not acknowledge the failure of the BLM to consider using contraceptive measures like those used so successfully on the eastern shore of Maryland.

November 10, 2008 at 2:35 pm
(9) *me* says:

you obviously need to do more research. have you tried interviewing someone from the BLM? if you had you obviously would know that killing them off is the last thing on their minds. it is an unfortunate necessity.

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