America’s wild horses face elimination in govt’s “path forward” plan

As the US Senate considers a $102 million proposal to reduce wild horse numbers in the west, wildlife ecologist Craig Downer makes a plea for urgent action to save the mustang herds from being gutted and their numbers reduced to unviable levels.

The unanimously passed Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 (WFHBA) should be protecting America’s last remaining wild horses and burros. But our federal government has been either eliminating or reducing them to mere token, non-viable population levels upon their legal Herd Areas (BLM-USDI) or Territories (US Forest Service).

Here they are supposed to be the “principal” presences, yet they continue to be victimized because of the selfish demands of public lands ranchers, big game hunters and other “resource” monopolisers.

The proposed $102-million budget for the coming year’s wild horse and burro program is now being considered by the Appropriations Committee of the US Senate. In 2020 alone, contractors with the federal government are proceeding to gather 12,584 wild equids and remove 11,400 from states throughout the West. According to the deceptively named “Path Forward” now before Congress, similar large-scale roundups would proceed over the next decade. This plan would obliterate America’s remaining herds, reducing them from a very modest level of about 60,000 to around a third of this, or 20,000. When spread out over about 200 remaining herds that have not been zeroed out, this represents around 100 wild equids per Herd Area, or Territory. Since each area usually contains thousands, sometimes even millions of acres, the gross injustice being perpetrated upon our nation’s last wild horses and burros becomes apparent. We must urge our Senators to oppose this outrageous attack on our free-living mustangs and burros and their legal habitats before it becomes too late.

BLM and USFS officials have been using deceptive and distorted information couched in hysterical, demagogic language. This they do in order to foment a false narrative concerning America’s relatively few remaining wild horses and burros. If their plan goes forward, after the herds are gutted, those horses and burros who remain would be subject to intensive semi or full sterilization treatments that would take the “wild” out of our wild horses and burros. This would be entirely contrary to the true spirit and intent of the WFHBA. Such would not be “A Path Forward” but a shameless and hypocritical mockery of the laws of our nation including also NEPA, FLPMA, PRIA, Multiple Use & Sustainability Act and the Administrative Procedure Act. If carried out, this plan would cripple the horses’ and burros’ ability to survive in the wild by converting their legal Herd Areas and Territories into intensive livestock operations with frequent allotment fencing and cross fencing aimed at maximizing cattle and sheep production and, though to a lesser degree, big-game hunter harvest. The equivalent of several million year-round cattle and sheep and many million deer, elk and other game animals are deliberately given grossly favored advantages while a tiny minority of wild horses and burros are persecuted, overly reduced and even eliminated using the misapplied pseudo-justification of “over-population”, “over-grazing” and “habitat destruction” that are, in fact, being caused by a variety of other factors, principal of which is public lands livestock ranching, but also including wildfires, off-highway vehicles, trespass livestock, illegal plunder of plants and animals on the public lands, mining, energy development, monopolization and diversion/draw-down of water tables -– and the list goes on.

A wary wild horse band on the Pine Nut Mountain HMA during a solar eclipse.

To scapegoat wild horses and burros for these abuses, to blame these animals who, in fact, restore the public lands life communities, is dishonest and mean-spirited. (See J.M. Ladendorf. 8/31/2016. The Ecological Impact of Horses as a Keystone Species Critical to the Regeneration of the Earth. VENews. Also: S. Luokkala. 10/26/2015. Casualties of the Vanishing West: The American wild horse continues to lose habitat to special interest groups. Earth Island Journal. Also ask me for my professional reports on various herds throughout the west, including the Pine Nut Mountain horse herd where I did an extensive ecological study listing disturbance factors.)

Now, to describe in further detail what is happening. The massive helicopter drives terrorize the horses and burros. These mercilessly jerk them from their natural habitats where they have become adapted over the generations, causing injury and even death among a significant number of those gathered. Being rounded up by the giant, whirring metal machines traumatizes the animals; those who survive suffer a persistent form of PTSD that causes them much suffering and anguish for the rest of their lives. Whenever they hear the whir of a helicopter, they panic. Many drop dead in the holding facilities where they are subsequently amassed, such as the one in Palomino Valley just north of Reno, Nevada, where I go to commiserate and lend them some modicum of moral support.

Plainly, our public servants in the BLM and Forest Service are miserably failing to uphold the basic rights of our cherished wild horses and burros, including their long-term survival in viable habitats and their free-roaming lifestyles. They are allowing over-fencing within their legal areas in order to accommodate cattle and sheep ranchers and other exploitive interests (e.g. the vast Owyhee Desert Herd Management Areas (HMA) in northern Nevada, southern Oregon and parts of Idaho). Also, they often fail to secure the water sources that are needed by these “national heritage species,” giving these waters over to lavish sprinkler-irrigated alfalfa fields of ranchers or mining operations that squander enormous quantities of water (e.g. the Bald Mountain Mine within eastern Nevada’s Triple B HMA). By relinquishing these and other vital habitat necessities, including highland summer (e.g. Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range) and lower winter valley or piedmont habitats (e.g. Black Rock East Wild Horse HMA), our public servants put the squeeze on the horses and burros.