The Nation's Pulse

The Old Horse Home

There'll be no death panels for our nation's aging mustangs.

By 11.9.09

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The West has been home to wild horses since the days of the conquistadores. For instance, the 1680 Pueblo rebellion that expelled the Spaniards from New Mexico for twelve years scattered large herds into the hands of the tribes of the Southern Plains. Today, there are Spanish bloodlines present in wild stock found as far north as Montana.

Rounding up mustangs destined for the leather tannery or the dog food factory used to be the formula for keeping the public lands herds numbers at manageable levels. But gone are the days of The Misfits, John Huston's 1961 film about wild horse wranglers in Nevada. In 1971, the federal "Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act" outlawed rounding up horses for slaughter. Afterwards, an annual quota of mustangs was collected by Bureau of Land Management (BLM) personnel from herds in ten Western states and offered locally for public adoption. But the weak economy has caused adoptions to shrink in recent years. With feeding, shelter, vet bills, etc., it costs thousands of dollars a year to keep a horse. And breaking a mustang to the saddle is hard work that might require a paid, professional cowboy to perform.

Americans are not tolerant of animal cruelty, witness the Michael Vick dog-fighting scandal. Even the morality of legal hunting is more and more questioned by an increasingly politically correct populace. Some think burgeoning whitetail deer numbers in the East should rate birth control for suburban Bambis. In the West, it's the wild horses. "The fact is that the American public has shown that it does not want to have slaughtering of these animals," Secretary of the Interior (BLM is under the purview of the Department of the Interior) Ken Salazar recently stated.

Approximately 37,000 mustangs roam degraded BLM rangelands (where they compete with domestic cattle for grass on leased grazing allotments) in those ten Western states. Another 32,000 (for a 69,000 total) have been rounded up and corralled in BLM "holding facilities." According to the Washington Post, 3,706 horses were adopted in 2008, down from 5,701 in 2005. All this (the roundups, the holding facilities, feeding, the BLM adoption process bureaucracy, etc.) costs taxpayers $50 million annually, with a projected estimate of $85 million for fiscal year 2012. The U.S. Congress finds this intolerable.

In July the House of Representatives passed the "Restore Our American Mustangs Act," which would require the BLM to set aside an additional 20 million acres of rangeland for the horses. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the total cost of the bill at $500 million. The Senate has yet to weigh in. But Interior Secretary Salazar has an alternative plan.

He recently proposed a program that would move the 32,000 detained horses to seven preserves in the East and Midwest (the locations have yet to be disclosed). Two of these would be financed by the taxpayers at an initial cost of $96 million, and $1.7 million annually for the first five years. The other five would function in partnership -- with additional federal assistance -- between the federal government and nonprofit animal welfare groups such as the Cloud Foundation, a wild horse preservation group based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The Post story goes on to say that, "All the animals would be sterilized or segregated by sex to prevent procreation. At the same time, the government would seek to sterilize or control the reproduction of enough animals on the range so that the birthrate is 3,500 foals a year." The goal is a population of 25,000 horses on the seven preserves by 2014, with an equal number left wild on the range and subject to reproductive strictures. And whether Salazar's plan as a fine-tuning of the House bill will actually save money is comparing apples to oranges. Time -- as in years -- will tell.

In actuality, what these projected preserves will be are outdoor nursing homes for neutered, aging horses. Geriatric equine petting zoos. The preserves will be open to the public, though whether the taxpayers will be charged admission to their horse refuges has not been established. "We think there is real potential for ecotourism…. Everybody loves horses," Interior spokesman Tom Gorey told AP. All this because polls indicate that the American people can't stomach the idea of regularly culling the herds to produce commercially marketable horsemeat and horsehide for leather products.

It's telling that people who, when it comes to the right to life, have no compunction being "pro-choice," yet are horrified by the idea of Fido feasting on Old Paint. 

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.