Twenty miles east of Cody are the McCullough Peaks, named for a nineteenth-century rancher, but otherwise misnamed because they are only a low range of desert hills rising above 110,000 acres of sagebrush overseen by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM). That surrounding vastness is home to the McCullough Peaks Wild Horse herd, currently numbering 300 head and roaming the range in small groups of a dozen or so mares, foals, adolescent males, and one dominant stallion. A colorful and diverse lot of grays, sorrels, bays, strawberry roans and splotchy paints. The official line from the BLM is that the herd is “beyond objective,” and should number approximately 100. This is significant because Wyoming (and the entire Intermountain West) is in the fourth consecutive year of drought, and sections of the public range are leased to ranchers, their cattle competing with the wild mustangs for grass and water.
There are 40,000 wild horses scattered across federal rangelands in the West, roughly half of them in Nevada, which is 86% public domain. Nearly every western state has wild horses. Wyoming’s 7,000 are concentrated in the southwestern part of the state, and in the Big Horn Basin up north, namely the McCullough Peaks herd and the Fifteenmile Creek herd near Worland. There origins are varied. Some bloodlines are Arabian and are traced to the sixteenth century conquest of Mexico, others to stray ranch stock of just the last few decades.
When people think of the roundup (or “gathering”) of wild horses they might be reminded of John Huston’s 1961 film The Misfits, starring Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in their final roles. In the movie an airplane is used to drive the horses into a corral in a remote box canyon, where “mustangers” rope and drive them onto cattle trucks destined for a cannery, where the horses are slaughtered and made into dog food. Those days are gone. Today the BLM is forbidden to “put down” any excess horse population on the range. That’s thanks to the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act (Nevada and Arizona have large herds of wild burros).
Nowadays, the mustangs are gathered much the same way (helicopters instead of planes), but are now trucked to regional BLM corrals, where they are offered to the public for adoption after the proper paperwork is completed and a fee is paid ($125 per horse or burro; $250 for a mare and foal). Since 1973 150,000 wild horses have been adopted this way. On the surface this sounds like a great idea: federal altruism at its best.
But the aforementioned three-decades-old legislation is now having a devastating effect (along with drought) on the range, if not the herds themselves. In recent years, millions budgeted to the BLM for wild horse management have been diverted to fight forest and range fires. The McCullough herd, which used to be culled on a yearly basis, has only been thinned twice in the last eight years (1995 and 1999). Meanwhile, the average annual reproduction rate is a normal 18%, doubling the size of the herd every three or four years. Then there’s the taxpayer boondoggle.
It costs the taxpayers about $1,800 per horse to put them through “the adoption pipeline”: $600 just to gather them, and up to $1,200 for feeding, transportation costs, and a veterinarian check (teeth, worming, an examination for Equine Infectious Anemia, and a vaccination for West Nile Virus). Foals are kept with mares. All this red tape keeps an expensive and inefficient system in place, with attendant job security for local BLM bureaucrats. The taxpayers get less than a 10% return on adoptions.
The BLM isn’t entirely to blame for this mess. Like its sister federal agencies — the Forest Service, the National Park Service, et al. — it is subject to endless litigation by environmental and animal rights groups. For instance, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Fund for Animals maintain that the herds should be left on the range in an unmolested wild state. These legal actions — like similar ones concerning logging on the national forests — are designed as stalling tactics against herd-thinning and range improvement, and as a weapon against leased livestock grazing on public lands, the great bogeyman hindering politically correct wild horse management, which is no management at all.
Over the last couple of years there has been a problem with wild horses being shot surreptitiously in remote areas. Separate incidents in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado have resulted in the deaths of scores of horses. This may be the work of deranged people, or of disgruntled ranchers holding federal grazing leases and whose cattle compete with wild horses for drought-stressed range. The BLM has offered a $30,000 reward for help in solving the killings. There’s no excuse for them, but the shootings highlight the fact that there are too many mustangs on the federal range.
As they graze the grass down to the dirt in our drought-stricken West, we see that the wild horse gathering and adoption program is a good candidate for the new Bush Administration federal contract privatization program. I know of a lot of out-of-work Wyoming cowboys who would work for “wages,” which I think would suit the American taxpayer just fine. As for litigation-happy enviros and animal rights wackos: the answer is tort reform.
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