What image could be more evocative of freedom than that of wild horses, galloping over the plains, their manes elegantly flowing in the breeze? It's a 90s screensaver-worthy image—but one that couldn't be farther from the truth for some 45,000 wild horses now in holding facilities across the US.
You may have heard that the Bureau of Land Management has voted to euthanize an ungodly number of wild horses, all so that livestock can graze on the land they once occupied. That, however, is not exactly the case, although it's not very far off.
What really happened is this. Last week, in Elko, Nevada, at a board meeting of the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board—a nine-member group that makes recommendations to the US Bureau of Land Management—a vote was taken about a surplus of wild horses that were relocated to holding facilities to make way for additional grazing land for cattle. The advisory board voted, eight-to-one, to recommend that the horses be euthanized. Now that recommendation will be made to the Bureau of Land Management, which has been burdened with a whopping $50 million bill for caring for the horses. The vote, however, is just a recommendation to the Bureau of Land Management. If they approve it—which they haven't done yet—the proposal then would go to Congress. If passed by Congress, the horses could be history sometime in 2017.
As you might imagine, some people are none too pleased at the prospect of the US government killing wild horses to make way for livestock. We spoke with Gillian Lyons, the Wild Horse and Burro Program Manager of the Wildlife Protection Department at the Humane Society, who told MUNCHIES that although the Humane Society is not opposed to livestock grazing on public lands, "The agency has a responsibility to humanely manage our nation's wild horses—they do not deserve to be sacrificed to make room for additional livestock grazing."
Lisa Lange, PETA's Senior Vice President, agrees. "The Bureau of Land Management betrayed wild horses the moment that it started rounding them up in order to free up federally protected land, which it then leased to the meat industry for grazing millions of cattle." Lange continued, "Animals raised and slaughtered by the meat industry vastly outnumber wild horses and burros, consume an exponentially greater amount of feed and water, and destroy the environment in the process. Rather than rounding up, corralling, and killing wild herds, the BLM should allow wild horses to remain wild and go after the industry that is actually depleting resources."
On the other hand, California Congressman Tom McClintock, a Republican who is on the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands—who has previously voted no on a bill that would have ensured acreage for wild horses—told MUNCHIES, "It is heartbreaking, but we're out of options. Without population control, the herds double every five years until they overwhelm the land, destroy critical habitats and ultimately starve." He points out the adoption market for wild horses is saturated and that sterilization programs have been blocked by animal rights groups. "So we're down to a brutal choice: watch these animals die gruesome deaths by starvation, dehydration and disease, or to provide for unrestricted sale or euthanasia. If there's a realistic alternative, I'd be grateful to hear it."
The one advisory board member who voted against the euthanasia recommendation, Ginger Kathrens of The Cloud Foundation, disagrees with McClintock's view. She told us that the wild horse population is overestimated; she believes it is "about the same as it was when BLM did their original censusing back in the mid 1970s. So this 'wildly out-of-kilter population' isn't that big, but what is big is the millions of livestock that these animals compete with."
Kathrens also believes the cost to the government of maintaining the wild horses has been exaggerated. "The BLM has screamed, 'This is awful, look at all those wild horses out there. We don't have a place to put them and they are costing so much money.' But do you know that the Bureau of Land Management asked for less money in their budget this year than they did last year?" In short, she says, "This is not a crisis at the current point in time, if they do what we have been challenging them to do, which is to go out onto the range and use the tools available to limit reproduction." But not the previously proposed sterilization methods, which Kathrens says were "horrific" and dangerous to the animals.
It's pretty clear that an answer that will please all parties seems nowhere in sight. In the meantime, 45,000 wild horses are anything but free, and their lives hang in the balance.