Guest column: Stop the war on wild horses! by Anna Charlton

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 1993:

A modern-day range war is underway on the vast
prairies of Nevada. Unless there is drastic and immediate
action, the casualty of this war will be the wild horse,
whom ranchers and bureaucrats seem determined to exter-
The wild horse is an enduring symbol of the
American west. The sight of a herd of these magnificent,
proud animals thundering across the open range evokes the
image of freedom. Responding to public outrage over the
slaughter of wild horses, Congress in 1971 passed the Free
and Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act, which calls for
the protection, management, and control of all wild horses
and burros on public land. But despite this legislative pro-
tection, wild horses are still shot, poisoned, and rustled.
The greatest threat to their survival, however, comes from
the Bureau of Land Management––the agency Congress
entrusted as their guardian. The BLM appears intent upon
“managing” wild horses out of existence, to increase the
profits of cattle and sheep ranchers.

Approximately 530,000 cattle and 250,000 sheep
compete with wild horses for the scant forage on the 48
million acres of public land in drought-stricken Nevada.
Each steer eats six tons of plant range material before going
to slaughter. Yet the BLM has decreed that wild horses,
whose numbers they set at 30,000, are chiefly responsible
for the depleted state of much of the shared range, and so
must be removed. If present herd management practices
continue, the wild horses may disappear from Nevada in a
very few years.
The Rutgers Animal Rights Law Clinic has
responded by becoming legal representative for the Public
Lands Resource Council, a small group who recently
undertook an independent aerial count of Nevada’s wild
horses, to show the public that the size of the wild horse
herds has been seriously and intentionally misrepresented
by the BLM. The PLRC spokesperson is Michael Blake,
author of the award-winning novel and screenplay Dances
With Wolves. Blake, who has personally adopted two wild
horses, has witnessed for himself the torment, humiliation,
and abuse these creatures endure in roundup and capture.
The BLM “counts” the wild horse herds to decide
how many must be removed from the range each year to
“protect” the forage. It has become clear to longtime
observers that the number of horses has been greatly exag-
gerated to rationalize large horse removals. This year,
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada estimated there were 75,000
wild horses. The Secretary of the Interior said that 60,000
remained. The BLM’s own count found 33,000 horses. But
the PLRC, with the help of individuals who formerly
helped count wild horses for the BLM, found only 8,231
wild horses left in Nevada. The BLM, meanwhile, has
scheduled 14,000 for removal. This means they could be
removing every surviving wild horse, in direct violation of
the 1971 federal law.
BLM horse management methods reveal their dis-
interest in the wellbeing and preservation of wild horses.
The persons doing the round-ups are paid according to the
number of horses they remove. The conflict of interest
inherent in entrusting the census of wild horses to persons
who will profit from overestimating the horse population
should be obvious.
Challenging the BLM’s round-up decisions and
methods is a difficult process. The basic problem is the
power of Nevada cattle interests. The number of cattle who
can be grazed on public lands is determined by Animal Unit
Months, a formula that determines how many animals an
acre of land can support. The wild horse and burro legisla-
tion requires these Animal Unit Months to be allocated
between wildlife and the number of cattle the holder of a
grazing permit wishes to graze. As wild horses are included
in the assessment of how much wildlife an area can sustain,
there is a direct conflict between the number of wild horses
and the number of cattle a permit holder is allowed to place
on the land. Among the Nevada permit holders and cattle
owners are some of the most powerful corporations and
most politically well-connected individuals in the nation.
The BLM has taken extraordinary steps to insure
that the public does not have a voice in the round-up deci-
sions. Until recently, the round-up plans were circulated to
interested parties for comment. Once the comments were
reviewed, the final decision was made. Persons who
objected to the round-up proposals were allowed to file
administrative appeals of the final decision, and round-ups
were halted pending the outcome of the process.
The BLM is now following a tighter procedure
that has virtually excluded public input––facilitating the
slaughter of wild horses while making themselves effective-
ly unaccountable. Now, after the initial comment period,
the round-up decisions are signed by the Interior Secretary
or his subordinates. When the Secretary signs a round-up
decision, the regulations do not allow aggrieved parties to
bring administrative appeals. Their only avenue of protest
is to file a proceeding in federal court. The BLM is well
aware that most people who are interested in wild horses do
not have the resources or expertise to initiate federal law-
suits. Such actions take time, considerable amounts of
money, and the services of a lawyer.
Moreover, and perhaps most damaging, BLM
district managers have been granted new powers. Last year,
regulations were approved under which the round-up deci-
sions of the district managers may be given “full force and
effect.” By the time a challenge can be made to the deci-
sion to round up horses, the round-up will be complete;
round-ups will no longer be halted while an administrative
appeal or lawsuit is pending. This leaves the public with-
out a remedy if an appeal is successful. In such a situation,
the BLM simply promises it will take fewer horses next
time, which means nothing if none are left.
Concerned individuals have challenged the BLM
before, but have lacked the legal training and hard figures
on horse numbers to be successful. Now we are in a differ-
ent situation. We are marshalling the resources of the
Animal Rights Law Clinic, and we have accurate data
from the PLRC aerial count. We will oppose every round-
up plan and appeal every round-up decision. We also are
preparing challenges to the whole system by which the
BLM manages wild horses in Nevada. We will contest the
BLM wild horse count, and argue that no round-ups
should take place until the vast discrepancy between the
BLM count and the PLRC count is explained. We further
will seek to invalidate the Secretary of the Interior’s “full
force and effect” powers, to insure that the public has a
true voice to object to management plans that threaten to
wipe out the wild horse herds.
We ask a moratorium on wild horse removals
pending an accurate count by an independent census firm;
full support for study of controlling wild horse populations
by the use of immunocontraceptives; a Congressional
investigation of possible fraud by the Department of the
Interior and elected officials with regard to wild horse
counts; and an end to the artificially low grazing fee struc-
ture on public lands, with a return to competitive bidding
for grazing rights.
Meanwhile, we need the help of ANIMAL
PEOPLE readers to convince Congress that policy toward
wild horses must change, before they are destroyed forever.
Please call us at 201-628-5989 for information on how you
can help, or request fact sheets and a postcard to send to
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, from the Rutgers Animal
Rights Law Clinic, 15 Washington St., Newark, NJ
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