Editorial #2: Time for a new national wild horse policy––covering all wild horses
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November/December 2013:
Editorial #2: Time for a new national wild horse policy––covering all wild horses [Photo credit: Kim Bartlett ] Data showing how many horses have been sold to slaughter per year, nationwide, can be extrapolated from readily available public records going all the way back to 1850. Throughout this time, coinciding with the advent of railways that enabled brokers to transport animals long distances to slaughter, the overwhelming majority of horses sold to slaughter have been either those at the end of their working utility to humans, or the unwanted surplus from speculative breeding. Speculative breeding rose rapidly as a source of horses sent to slaughter as employment of horses for transportation declined. Mass roundups of wild horses for slaughter have never been a huge part of the slaughter traffic at the national level. Yet the exceptional cruelty inflicted on wild horses during roundup and transport have been focal to concern about horse slaughter since Velma “Wild Horse Annie” and the 1961 Marilyn Monroe/Clark Gable film The Misfits brought the roundups to public notice more than 50 years ago. To horses used to being handled by humans and being hauled among shows, racetracks, and breeding venues, the journey to auction and slaughter does not obviously differ much from any other. But the terror of horses unused to humans, as they are swooped upon and driven by helicopter, then trucked to be killed, is evident to almost any observer. Currently about 1% of the horses exported from the U.S. to slaughter are wild horses, according to data collected in 2009 by the Unwanted Horse Coalition. The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 nominally protected wild equines from being sold to slaughter, but only those wild equines who inhabit public lands under the authority of the Bureau of Land Management. The law allows the BLM to round up “surplus horses” for “adoption,” a system which has been notoriously abused from inception. After about 25 years of frequent exposés of high-volume “adoptions” to killer-buyers, the BLM tightened adoption procedures enough to slow the volume of wild horses going illegally to slaughter. But the adoption market is so weak, and the livestock industry pressure to remove horses from leased grazing land is so great, that throughout the present century the BLM has had more wild horses in holding facilities––now about 49,000––than the estimated 40,000 who remain on the range. A 2004 stealth rider to an Interior appropriations bill attached by former Montana U.S. Senator Conrad Burns appeared likely to reopen high-volume commerce in BLM wild horses for slaughter. The Burns rider, however, has been suspended since 2005 by language included in annual Interior appropriations bills. The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 never applied to wild equines on private property, state land, or non-BLM federal land, including land managed by the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Fish & Wildlife Service, the armed forces, and Native American tribes. The wild burro rescues from National Park Service property that made the Fund for Animals famous in the 1979, were the signature actions of Wild Burro Rescue in the 1990s, and for which Peaceful Donkey Sanctuary has become known more recently, all resulted from this Congressional omission. Each burro rescue was triggered by National Park Service threats to shoot wild burros as an alleged invasive species––and, indeed, many burros were shot in each case before the animal charities stepped in. Instead of shooting wild equines, other land-holding agencies have mostly just quietly rounded them up and sold them to slaughter from time to time. Seldom have these round-ups and sales attracted more than transient notice, but that changed abruptly in mid-2013 when the Navajo Nation Department of Agriculture issued a statement in support of the Valley Meat Company application to slaughter horses. The statement alleged that 75,000 wild horses on Navajo lands are contributing to the ecological damage done by several years of worsening drought, and acknowledged that some Navajo had already been rounding up and selling wild horses at auction, aware that some might be bought for slaughter. In October 2013, however, Navajo Nation president Ben Shelly and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson “reached an agreement in principle in which the Navajo Nation would suspend horse roundups and halt the sale of Navajo horses to horse processing plants,” reported Katherine Locke of the Navajo-Hopi Observer. “Shelly said the tribe will pull back its support for the plant and suspend horse round ups,” Locke continued, “while it works with the Foundation to Protect New Mexico Wildlife and other groups to develop and implement alternative policies to manage feral horse populations. Possible solutions include equine birth control, adoption, land management, and public education.” Elaborated Jeri Clausen of Associated Press, “Richardson and actor Robert Redford created the Foundation to Protect New Mexico Wildlife in July 2013 to fight efforts to slaughter horses.” Meanwhile in northern Nevada, former Florida state senator Joseph Abruzzo in August 2013 brokered a deal on behalf of Saving America’s Wild Horses founder Madeline Pickens that enabled the Triumph Foundation to buy 150 mustangs who were to have been auctioned by the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe. Endowed by Chesapeake Petroleum board chair Victoria McCullough, the Triumph Foundation paid $193 apiece for the horses, who were to be distributed among many different rescue charities. Another 167 horses were auctioned to probable slaughter. The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign spent September and October 2013 trying to prevent the Fish & Wildlife Service from sending 252 wild horses taken from the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada to Stan Palmer of J&S Associates in Pelahatchie, Mississippi. Palmer claims to be an adoption broker; the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign contends he is a “slaughter middleman.” “According to the Fish & Wildlife Service’s own investigation,” the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign charged, “Palmer and J&S cannot account for the whereabouts of as many as 202 of the 262 horses received under a previous contract with FWS to ‘adopt out’ Sheldon horses. In fact, one Alabama man who Palmer ‘adopted’ horses to admitted to selling ‘a bunch’ at a livestock auction. The FWS investigation also raised questions about J&S’ care for horses in its possession.” But the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign failed to win a restraining order against the transfers. The Fish & Wildlife Service “concluded that 112 of the 262 horses J&S received from 2010-12 were placed with ‘suitable and appropriate adopters,’” summarized Scott Sonner of Associated Press in September 2013, after U.S. District Judge Miranda Du denied the restraining order. “But it acknowledged the disposition of 82 animals placed with one adopter was uncertain, with at least some of those horses being sold by the adopter. J&S did not provide documentation for the disposition of 65 horses, but it appeared they were being held on pastures owned by two private individuals in Mississippi.” In November 2013 the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign asked the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to investigate the Fish & Wildlife deals with Palmer. A 451-page National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council report in June 2013 pointed out that, “The current removal strategy used by BLM perpetuates the overpopulation problem by maintaining the number of animals at levels below the carrying capacity of the land, protecting the rangeland and the horse population in the short term but resulting in continually high population growth and exacerbating the long-term problem. As a result, the number of animals processed through holding facilities is probably increased by management.” The National Research Council findings urgently need to be incorporated into a comprehensive new wild horse management policy, no longer centered on horse removals to placate ranchers who are currently pasturing 8.9 million cattle on the same lands: 223 cows per horse. Also to be taken into account is that at the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, wild horses had few significant predators. The act accordingly reflected a perceived need to manage wild horses in absence of predation. Wild horses are now among the prey of increasingly abundant pumas, wolves, and––in the northern Rockies––recovering populations of grizzly bears. Further, at the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, development of effective contraceptives for wild horses was still only a theory. Wild horse contraception is now a thoroughly tested technology, licensed and available for use wherever appropriate. All of these factors need to be taken into consideration. And this time the new national wild horse management policy needs to cover all public land where wild horses live, not just the 179 BLM “wild horse management areas” scattered across 10 western states with vast expanses of other public land in between.