Doomsday Clock Ticks for Wild Horses of American West

By August 1, 2009

The question on the minds of many of America’s wild horse advocates is will Bob Abbey, President Obama’s appointee to head the Bureau of Land Management, offer a reprieve to 30,000 of America’s wild horses and burros removed from public lands and moved to holding facilities? Or will he take the advice of a recent BLM report outlining how to euthanize thousands of horses—quietly, out of the public eye—until the “problem” simply goes away?

Last fall outgoing BLM director Henri Bisson announced at the Annual Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board meeting in Reno, Nevada, that the BLM’s program to manage wild herds was simply running out of money. It was costing taxpayers millions of dollars a year to gather and house horses in short- and long-term holding facilities, and the adoption initiatives designed to re-home mustangs and burros was not placing them in numbers necessary to make a significant difference.

Cloud, the grey stallion made famous in a PBS documentary, lives on federal land in Montana in a herd scheduled to be "reduced." (Photo by Tony Weingert)

The BLM estimated its costs for Fiscal Year 2008 for “holding and caring” for the wild horses at more than $27 million—three-fourths of the total budget proposed for the wild horse and burro program—and projected that in 2009 the costs would only escalate. It was time, Bisson said, to consider ways to euthanize the nearly 30,000 wild horses that were currently showing up as red ink on the BLM ledgers, and he proposed a September 2009 deadline for taking further action.

Bisson’s strong words—his last on the topic before he exited his position with the BLM in January—were not lost on a number of wild horse advocates who fear a doomsday clock is ticking and that there is little time left to stop the BLM from implementing its plan to kill thousands of America’s wild horses, which would give pro-slaughterhouse activists a significant foothold. While federal law does not currently prohibit horse slaughter, the last of three remaining U.S. plants was forced closed in 2007.

In May, Debra Sirower, a Phoenix-based attorney working on behalf of the Arizona nonprofit Conquistador Equine Rescue and Advocacy Program, obtained documents from the BLM via the Freedom of Information Act that shed light on a series of “private”—some say secret—meetings that took place last year between the BLM and a USDA veterinarian. The 68-page report, “Alternative Management Options,” finalized in October, outlined how to kill or sterilize thousands of wild horses without attracting the attention of the American public.

According to the report Sirower received, the BLM quietly held weekly “Implementation Team” meetings to consider the best use of barbiturates, gunshots or captive bolts for euthanizing the horses along with how to best dispose of their bodies and how to deal with the emotional fallout on those “doing the actual work” of putting down healthy horses.

“Minutes from these meeting as well as the Draft Plan reveal what amounts to ‘the final solution’ for the American mustang,” said Ginger Kathrens, filmmaker and volunteer executive director of the Cloud Foundation, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to protecting wild horses.

Kathrens said she is concerned that the new director for the BLM will continue with plans for extermination. On August 30, the BLM is scheduled to begin rounding up horses from Pryor Mountain in Montana, a herd she brought to national attention in 2001 with the first of two PBS documentaries, “Cloud:  Wild Stallion of the Rockies.”  “Cloud’s Legacy: The Wild Stallion Returns” continued the tale in 2003. “There is no guarantee they won’t round up Cloud, too,” Kathrens said.

Closer to home in Ely, Nevada, wildlife ecologist Craig Downer said the BLM had recently solicited public comment regarding the BLM’s intended round-up in late August that is expected to eliminate all of the wild horses from 11 herd management areas in Ely, about four hours north of Las Vegas, near the state’s eastern border with Utah. Downer said he hopes Abbey proves sympathetic to those opposed to the elimination of the herds, but he was not optimistic. Abbey, who previously served as head of the Nevada BLM for seven years, “carried out a policy that was pretty adverse to wild horses, setting the ‘Appropriate Management Levels’ (AML) extremely low,” Downer pointed out.

Under questioning from Senators at a July confirmation hearing, Abbey admitted there are no easy answers to the problem, “given the likelihood that the number of horses and burros on the range will continue to exceed the ability of the range to support them.” He noted that he had introduced several successful programs during his tenure with the Nevada BLM to aid in the adoption of the horses and would look to continue programs that work to “reduce the percent of annual population growth within the herds.”

Dr. Pat Haight, president of the Conquistador Equine Rescue and Advocacy Program, said she thinks that the BLM fully intends to euthanize what they consider to be an excess of wild horses, and she doesn’t believe the appointment or confirmation of a new BLM director will make any difference. “The BLM is crying, ‘We can’t take care of the horses,’ and they continue to issue contracts to pick them up,” she said. Asked point blank if the BLM intended to go forward with the extermination of tens of thousands of horses, spokesman Tom Gorey issued the agency’s standard response: “The BLM has the legal authority under the 1971 law to humanely put down excess horses, but we have always regarded that as a last-resort measure.”

Last resort, maybe, but certainly not last minute. The plan is nothing if not well thought-out. Notes from the “Implementation Team” meetings suggested ways in which horses might be euthanized during round-ups without violating environmental laws and suggested ways to get around the disposal of carcasses. It was determined that only a limited number of horses at any one time could be sent to rendering plants or disposed of in pits. The team concluded it would not be possible to euthanized large number of horses during gathers or in the field, due to state environmental laws, and suggested the killing of 1,200–2,000 wild horse per year as a way of flying below the radar of the America public. The document states, “The general public would be prohibited from viewing euthanasia.”

In further actions, the team suggested the creation of “gelding herds” and the sterilization of mares, along with the use of the porcine zona pellucida vaccine (PZP) every two years for mares being returned to the wild. Those horses already in holding facilities could be sold “without limitation” or any kind of restriction with regard to their age or the number of times they may have been made available for adoption, meaning many would undoubtedly end up in kill lots or headed to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada.

In July the BLM posted a fact sheet on its Web site stating it could not continue its current removal and holding practices, nor could it “allow horses to multiply unchecked on the range without causing an environmental disaster.” Gorey said, “The BLM is looking at all options at this point to manage through the situation. We have not made any decisions about which option(s) to pursue, but we are in discussions with Congress and humane groups to find an appropriate legal solution.”

“The entire plan shows the BLM not understanding wild horses as wildlife species,” said Karen Sussman, director of the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros in Lantry, South Dakota. Sussman makes a convincing scientific case that fertility rate increases among the wild herds are a direct result of the constant disruption in the living and mating patterns of the animals, specifically in the disruption over the past 20 years of the “harems,” in which alpha stallions prevent lesser males from access to mares.

Many environmentalists feel that there are so few American wild horses left that the slaughter of any of them would be a tragic loss in terms of species preservation, particularly as the current plans appear to exterminate with no attention paid to maintaining foundation bloodlines, many of which date back to the Conquistadors some 600 years ago. “There are so few wild horses left in our country that the slaughter of any wild horse would be a travesty,” Sussman said. “The plan could ultimately rear the ugly head of slaughter for all horses in our country.”

Despite reservations about what Abbey may or may not do with regard to the wild horses, wildlife ecologist Downer is unwilling to abandon hope. “He may be the kind of person that goes along with the flow and didn’t want to buck the system under Clinton or Bush,” he said of the Obama appointee, who, he concedes, might perform differently under a very different administration. “We might try to bend him rather than offend him.”

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