Horses starve at White Sands

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 1994:

WHITE SANDS, New Mexico–– Three of the four wild horse herds on the
White Sands Missile Range survived an early summer drought in good shape, but
between July 6 and July 15, when rain came and the grass grew, the Mound Spring
herd lost 122 of an estimated 400 members to starvation––49 of them shot by military
police to end their misery. Descended
from ranch horses left when the range was
expropriated in 1946, from 1,300 to
1,500 horses roam about two million
acres. The New Mexico Department of
Game and Fish says the range can support
no more than 500 horses. In 1989 protest
halted a White Sands attempt to auction
some horses for slaughter, via the state
Livestock Board, which by state law
owns all free-roaming horses not covered
by federal law. In 1990 Rep. Joe Skeen
(R-N.M.) won an appropriation of
$200,000 to enable White Sands to pay
the Bureau of Land Management to adopt
out some of the horses. The New Mexico
wild horse law stopped that.

In addition to the horses, New
Mexico claims the White Sands herd of
800 to 1,000 feral gemsbok (oryx
gazella), descended from animals
released by the Department of Game and
Fish from 1969 through 1973 to stimulate
hunting. About 4,500 hunters per year
apply to kill a gemsbok. Two hundred
permits per year are awarded by lottery,
at $41 for residents and $1,581 for non-
residents; about 100 gemsbok are actual-
ly killed. In theory the gemsboks might
compete with the horses for grass, but
Dave Thompson of the White Oak
Conservation Center in Yulee, Florida,
said that they probably don’t. “The oryx
are more browsers than grazers,”
Thompson explained, who eat shrubs that
horses won’t touch. “We have 21 oryx on
four irrigated acres,” Thompson contin-
ued, “and we still have to mow. If we
put 21 of our horses out there, they’d eat
and trample it to bare dirt in six months.”
Two of the four water holes in
the Mound Spring area are fenced, but
the fencing has no effect on either the ani-
mals or the grass. One––unpalatably
saline––is fenced to protect endangered
pupfish; the other is fenced to safeguard
the head of a stream, from which the ani-
mals still can drink.
Animal rescuers raced to help as
the White Sands crisis became known,
but were excluded by brigadier general
Jerry Laws, who had hay and water
trucked to the horses, and proposed that
1,000of them be rounded up for slaughter.
Blew a gasket
“The general blew a gasket,”
said Fund for Animals founder Cleveland
Amory, “when we asked for permission
to help, were denied, and went over his
head to the Pentagon, where we were also
denied. There were people right there
who would have helped if allowed to.”
Assistant New Mexico attorney
general Allen Ferguson Jr. wrote in an
August 2 legal opinion that an alternative
to slaughter might be found. Ferguson’s
opinion contradicted the 1990 opinion that
the state owns the horses. A task force
was to discuss options on August 26––one
of which may be to permit natural attri-
tion, including by predators. White Sands
has many resident pumas, who may be
joined eventually by Mexican gray
wolves, tentatively slated for reintroduc-
tion to the U.S. at White Sands since
1991. The reintroduction has been
delayed by opposition from ranchers.
Robin Duxbury, national direc-
tor for Animal Rights Mobilization,
whose current campaign is “The Year of
the Horse,” and a columnist for the horse
monthly Maverick Press, endorses natural
attrition. “Painful as it is to see any ani-
mal starve,” she said, “we believe that
nature should be allowed to thin out herds
by taking the weak, the sick and the old,
which results in stronger herds. Before
any attempt is made to ‘rescue’ wild hors-
es,” she continued, “activists must con-
sider the life a wild horse will have in cap-
tivity.” Artificially removing horses from
tightly structured wild bands, she warned,
could produce fighting for hierarchy. If
horses are to be removed, she said, bands
should be taken together.
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