Endangered species status is only hope for Wyoming’s wild horses

Sept. 15 marked the beginning of the Bureau of Land Management’s war against Wyoming’s wild horses as it began roundups of 800 horses from the Checkerboard Herd Management Area after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit denied an emergency motion by wild horse advocates to stop the roundups.

Monday also marked the deadline for when U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had to respond to Friends of Animals’ petition to list North American wild horses on public lands as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the best hope for the survival of wild horses in Wyoming and other states since the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act (WHBA), which was passed in 1971, has failed to protect our wild horses. 

“In light of BLM’s intention to virtually wipe-out Wyoming’s remaining wild horse population, the time is now for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to respond to our petition to place these animals on the list of endangered or threatened species,” said FoA’s Wildlife Law Program Director Michael Harris. 

“With one agency—the BLM—already failing the horses, we ask USFWS to treat the situation in Wyoming as an emergency requiring immediate action. And given the strong evidence that wild horses are a distinct population of a reintroduced North American native species, they clearly deserve our protection.” 

Listing wild horses, which the BLM claims are non-native despite scientific evidence, as either threatened or endangered under the ESA would provide needed regulation to halt further exploitation of this species, particularly roundups removing the animals from their range.  Six states have already lost their wild horse populations—Missouri, Iowa, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.  The misclassification of wild horses as a non-native species is politically, not scientifically driven.

“The tragedy of horse roundups exists because the BLM appears devoted to turning arid western public lands into feedlots for cows and sheep to appease cattle producers,” said Priscilla Feral, president of FoA. “Friends of Animals finds this morally and ecologically reprehensible, as wild horses are driven off lands to leave the bulk of water, forage and space for two domestic animals owned by ranchers. We oppose the BLM’s scheme of privatizing wild horses and insist all roundups end.”

Without recognition of current scientific evidence of their native status, wild horses could become extinct. The petition states that the 41,000 wild horses currently on public lands have been divided into even smaller herds, whose populations are so low that they are susceptible to being wiped out completely by a chance event or change in the environment. BLM is obligated, under WHBA, to protect wild free-roaming horses as an “integral part of the natural system of public lands.”  BLM claims that wild horses need to be removed from public lands to protect rangeland health. However the vast majority of public lands is open to livestock grazing, which causes far more damage to the land. 

“The BLM and cattle and sheep ranchers are responsible for the crimes currently being committed against wild horses,” said Edita Birnkrant, Campaigns Director for FoA. “The BLM has renounced its duty to protect wild horses and burros in favor of acting solely in the interests of those whose hatred and intolerance of wild horses fuels the roundups—ranchers. 

BLM claims that wild horses need to be removed from public lands to protect rangeland health. However the vast majority of public lands is open to livestock grazing, which causes far more damage to the land. In Wyoming, for example, livestock far outnumber wild horses. There are 356,222 cattle; 45,206 sheep; and 1, 912 wild horses, within the three HMAs targeted for roundup, according to the BLM’s own data.

“The sadistic roundups occurring right now in Wyoming are ripping families of wild horses apart, terrorizing them with helicopter chases, separating foals from their mothers and imprisoning them in squalid holding facilities where their fates are unknown and where horses can be sent to slaughterhouses,” Birnkrant said. “If FoA doesn’t get a timely response to our Endangered Species Act petition from Sally Jewell, we will immediately pursue our legal options in court. There is no more time left for America’s wild horses.”

It’s a crime that today there are more wild horses living in dismal holding facilities—approximately 47,417—than on the range.