by Scott Smith, Communications Director
Consider this: You and your extended family have lived peacefully on the same land for generations, thriving in good times, coping with the bad. A powerful new enemy comes on the scene, bringing with them many others, who take your food and water and degrade your land.
Having robbed your homeland of the resources that have long sustained you, your new overlord declares you are no longer welcome. You and your relatives are brutally rounded up and broken apart; many are shipped to faraway internment camps, others to near-certain slaughter.
Still you hang on, for you are survivors. A new “friend” approaches and says, “We will save you if you do as we say.” You have no choice, nor do you know that this new friend is in cahoots with your overlord. They will allow a few of your family to subsist on a small, spare portion of your land only if you agree to sterilize your females and live and love as they tell you.
That’s no parable. It’s the Bureau of Land Management’s malicious treatment of America’s free-roaming wild horses and the Humane Society’s collusive use of a controversial fertility-control drug to reduce wild horse populations to the draconian levels the BLM needs to keep its sweetheart deals with livestock producers even remotely viable.
We are now midway through the 50th anniversary of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, and Velma Bronn Johnston, aka Wild Horse Annie, who fought so hard for it to pass, must be rolling over in her grave.
These days, everyone from so-called wild horse advocates to members of Congress and the Interior Department’s BLM — the federal agency in charge of safeguarding the animals — are perpetuating a narrative that there are too many wild horses on federal public lands.
But there are not. The truth is there is no evidence that there are too many wild horses on federal public lands. As the National Academy of Sciences reported in 2013, the BLM’s assertions that populations are increasing by some 20 percent or more each year are not based on sound scientific methodology. That’s why the subject of birth controls should be a non-starter.
The real issue is the BLM thinks it is above the law meant to protect wild horses. So, for decades it has prioritized commercializing federal public lands over the last remaining herds, thus obliterating the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.
The meat industry, as well as oil, gas and mineral extraction projects, are fragmenting habitat for wild horses and other wildlife, damaging the environment and contributing to climate change. Of the 245 million acres of public land managed by the BLM, 155 million is open to livestock grazing. By contrast, wild horses are restricted to just 26.9 million acres, which they must share with livestock.
Lots of livestock. Today, upward of 2 million cattle graze public lands, not to mention millions of sheep — compared to a measly 79,568 wild horses.
Worse, the grazing fees the BLM and U.S. Forest Service charge livestock operators to use federal public lands — mostly on the grasslands, deserts, sagebrush steppe and national forests of the West — are a sweetheart deal if ever there was one. In recent years, these seasonal fees have averaged just 6.72% of that charged for non-irrigated private grazing lands. That gap has widened considerably since 1981, when the federal fee was 23.79% of fees charged on private rangelands.
We’re talking a buck and change for a cow and calf or a handful of sheep to fatten up for season on what the BLM calls a Herd Management Area before being shipped off to a feedlot. It’s a cozy deal that benefits only about 20,000 of the 800,000 ranchers and cattle producers in the United States, and always at a loss to the U.S. taxpayer. Total federal appropriations for the USFS and BLM grazing programs in fiscal year 2014 were $143.6 million, while grazing receipts were only $18.5 million.
It’s a long-running bad deal for U.S. taxpayers, and even more so for wild horses. Since the passage of WHBA, meant to ensure their safety to roam free, wild horses have lost 41 percent of their habitat — more than 20 million acres. Six states have already lost their entire wild horse populations: Missouri, Iowa, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.
New Mexico, the home state of Interior Dept. Secretary Deb Haaland, only has a measly 200 wild horses left. Montana has a paltry 166. The Equid Specialist Group of IUCN Species
Survival Commission recommends minimum populations of 2,500 individuals in continuous areas for the conservation of genetic diversity.
BLM’s analysis of America’s wild horse population has ignored scientific information about the positive impact of wild horses on the habitat where they evolved, a crucial lie especially in times of drought. The most recent study indicates wild horses are ecosystem engineers and know how to tap the earth for water. According to a paper published April 29, 2021 in the journal Science, the animals use their hooves to dig more than six feet deep to reach groundwater for themselves. This activity creates oases that serve as a boon to wildlife—American badgers, black bears, and an array of birds, including some declining species such as elf owls.
Other studies have demonstrated that wild horses support healthy ecosystems on public land if given enough habitat and left alone. For example, wild horses help spread plant seeds over large areas where they roam. Wild horses do not decompose the vegetation they ingest as thoroughly as ruminant grazers, such as cattle or sheep, which allows the seeds of many plant species to pass through their digestive tract intact into the soil that the wild horses fertilize by their droppings. Wild horses also help to prevent catastrophic fires and help to build more moisture-retaining soils. Still, the BLM wants to round up an additional 50,000 horses, leaving less than 26,000 wild horses on our public lands, and is open to dosing many of the remaining mares with the pesticide PZP. Derived from the ovaries of slaughterhouse pigs, Porcine Zona Pellucida is an immunocontraceptive that when injected into a female horse induces an immune response that blocks fertilization.
Tragically, a number of advocates for wild horses are game to go along with this genocide, including the Humane Society (HSUS), which happens to be the federal registrant for PZP. The BLM can’t use the fertility-control drug without the assent of HSUS, which in fact monitors management plans for wild horse eradication efforts (which they and the BLM euphemistically call “gathers”).
It doesn’t surprise Friends of Animals that a lot of the research touting the advantages of PZP has been conducted by those with a vested interest in it, not only the HSUS but also the Science and Conservation Center, which produces the active ingredient in PZP. However, independent studies conducted a decade ago by Princeton University showed that prolonged
infertility has significant consequences on social behavior of the herds, as well as cases of dangerous late birthing of foals out of season. That research, of wild horses on the Shackleford Banks in North Carolina, managed by the National Parks Services, led the NPS to stop its PZP contraceptive program in 2009.
The BLM and HSUS know full well that PZP will never replace roundups because in most cases the BLM will have to gather more than 90% of the herd to contracept mares, destroying the harem structure in the same way a roundup would. Funny, but the BLM and HSUS are reluctant to acknowledge that they have been darting and drugging the Onaqui herd in Utah since 2015, which didn’t stop the controversial roundup by helicopter that began July 13, after a Washington DC-based judge denied Friends of Animals’ preliminary injunction to stop it.
The Biden administration must do better by America’s wild horses before it is too late. It needs to ensure leadership in federal agencies committed to reexamining the implementation of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act to ensure adequate habitat for wild horses.
What we’re seeing in Congress is not good. Last summer, Reps. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn), Dina Titus (D-Nev.), Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) and Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, filed an amendment to the 2021 appropriations act that would require the BLM to utilize $11 million of its Wild Horse and Burro Program budget to implement fertility control (PZP) to manage wild horse populations.
Their misguided efforts simply mask half a century of wild horse mismanagement by the BLM. FoA urges federal legislators to focus on implementing reserve design, a holistic way to manage wild horses. Reserve design would allow wild horses to reoccupy their full legal status as outlined by the WHBA, abrogate by the BLM and their crony ranchers, and involves utilizing natural and artificial barriers, natural predators, as well as community-involved buffer zones. Once available habitat is filled, wild horses and burros, both climax species, will limit their own population as density-dependent controls are triggered.
To add insult to injury, the BLM launched a web page celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, and it underscores the agency’s belief wild horses only have value if they can be adopted out, domesticated, trained and paraded around — and that is a national disgrace.