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I have been an equine advocate for over 20 years. About a decade ago I switched my focus to America’s wild horses after meeting an old mustang at a packing plant that had served man all of his life, even carrying young girls at a summer camp, only to be discarded like trash. He was to be sent to Mexico where he would be stabbed to death in the horse slaughter pipeline. The slaughter trade exists primarily to serve industry overbreeding, statistics show over 90% of American horses are euthanized through responsible ownership. Horse slaughter is not the conversation for America’s wild mustangs, but it could be very soon.
Each day my news feed is filled with stories about the threats to our wild places and wild things under the new administration. Threats to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Endangered Species (ESA), National Monuments and takeover of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land management by states to serve profit driven exploitation are everywhere. Hunters, off-road enthusiasts, rock climbers, tribal leaders and environmental interests are vocal as they educate the public and media at large to build campaigns to protect our wild things and wild places.
I am grateful that this conversation is finally reaching a larger audience as it pushes back against the antics of the pirates in Washington. If we fail to protect the treasure those antics will sweep in and steal it from us all. But how many of those stories include the wild horse, in the collective, as a threatened interest on public land? I haven’t seen one yet.
Over the last decade in meeting after meeting I have sat there and taken the brunt of a joke time and time again as an historic entrenched prejudice uses the wild horse as a bonding moment for the other interests in the room. It is almost as if the shrinking pie of public land resources has created “let’s remove that interest so we all have more” and “now that all agree on something we can talk.” Amid laughter the conversations continue, until I open my mouth and remind people of the law.
Wild horses are a resource, not a use. I know that statement is lost on most people because of how the media has portrayed the issue. Wild horses are to be preserved and protected as a heritage species with significant public interest, much like a National Monument or a blade of grass. They are not a permitted use, a tempered use with a privilege extended to utilize our American resource for profit or recreation.
Instead of addressing this legal conversation with data and fact we constantly surround the wild horse with myth. In June of 2013 the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) reviewed the BLM Wild Horse and Burro program and essentially failed every aspect of management on even any pretense of practices based on scientific review. Yet instead of creating an overhaul of wild horse range management that identifies any variable required to preserve resource we saw more than 11 million poured into perpetuating more old cowboy myth, “Lets geld them studs and spay them mares.” All it takes is one intact male to impregnate hundreds, gelded males have limited foraging patterns, spaying a mare surgically is a highly dangerous procedure even in a sterile environment and we have no clue what the consequences would be genetically to a population. Instead of 11 million going into hiring enough staff and providing equipment to appropriately define what preservation of a herd even looks like, we continued down the same disastrous path.
Why? Perhaps because we need to perpetuate the prejudice. When contention arises and counties and states get angry the favorite placation tool used in the “BLM social club” is to simply remove the horses and then everyone smiles. Kinda like everyone agreeing to beat up the social misfit in high school; the bullies get their energy out and everyone else is just grateful it wasn’t on them.
Mahleur, Bunkerville, the Grass March are events the media covered regularly, but does anyone know wild horses in Nevada had a similar event at Fish Creek? The largest data collection and fertility control program in the nation has essentially died because of pressure, intimidation and manipulation of the system to placate the same interests that got such broad media attention elsewhere. Yes, it is the same movement. I was there, it was tense. I became the target, just like the horse did.
Has the federal government moved legally upheld actions forward? No. Instead it appears that backdoor deals were made to push out those lawfully representing the wild horse and possibly a cover up of illegal actions by the opposition. We don’t know the truth. The BLM wont even release the information under a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request. What we do know is that the State Director, John Ruhs, is now acting Deputy Director of the BLM, the highest career position in the agency and our work has been stonewalled.
Yes, the crazy “leave them all alone” faction in wild horse activism was harnessed through social media, a significant minority in advocacy. Sometimes it appears that they are actually hitting every target the states and counties want shut down. Is it intentional? I can’t say. However BLM will point to them and say “Oh, we have opposition,” yet completely ignore any conversation that focuses on the most contentious opposition coming from those they usually placate, states and counties. I usually answer “So when has any threat of litigation I have made over the last decade changed what you do? But this new group sends a letter from an attorney and you balk? Give me a break.”
Under John Ruhs the American public has spent over half a million dollars on a project to open grazing areas closed during drought at Argenta. The project provides exclusive access to monitoring and conversations, the public is not permitted to participate. This has been provided to a group that has expanded an intimidation camp across the street from a BLM office.
This same district has no funds to move a process forward for management district wide. They can not afford, or get organized enough, to update their archaic land use plan that continues to operate as mines expand, grazing permits are renewed and the wild horse areas are “managed” under a flawed paradigm. But somehow we found more than half a million, and we are not done yet, to open areas back up to livestock?
The bullies beat up the social outcasts and the BLM social club, that prioritizes their family and friends, moves on. On public land there is no fair multiple use if you don’t dig up acres of land for profit, graze acres of land for profit or shoot to kill something.
A few things to keep in mind as we discuss the myths used to perpetuate the prejudice:
* There is no fossil record of large open pit mines that span miles. There is no fossil record of ATV use. There is no fossil record of hunters with long guns. There is no fossil record of millions of European cows.
* There is a fossil record of wild horses.
* Not all ranchers point an AK at BLM employees.
* Not all ATV users go off trail and break thousands of beer bottles.
* Not all hunters kill out of season or shoot up refrigerators and TV’s on public land.
* Not all wild horse advocates are clueless to the law, the reality of the range, vegan and trying to take your right to own a purebred dog away.
* We have more than 500,000 elk in the western US.
* We have more than 600,00 pronghorn in the western US.
* We have around 500,000 mule deer in the western US (this is viewed as a troubling decline).
BLM estimates we have about 65,000 wild horses (about twice what BLM claims can be sustained based on a flawed survey done in 1975).
Wild horses do not naturally breed at a rate of 20-25%, they only do that after large removals that destabilize the herd. After 3 years of a deceleration in removals we are seeing, just what I said ten years ago, that population increases have slowed. Even though BLM still states a 20-25% population increase every year, over the course of the last year populations increased by 15%. Just think about that for a moment please; BLM could have spent millions more dollars to remove even more horses and the math on the range would be the same. By limiting massive removals we saved money and decreased population growth rates.
We can bring wild horses out of the realm of myth and into the realm of integrated use based on scientific review. We can slow population growth, gather data and integrate into the whole. But we can not do it if we keep getting ganged up on every time we try.
If you want your permitted use to be respected can you please begin to respect my right to have a resource protected? Nah, I didn’t think so. Let’s just keep talking about killing the wild horses, that seems to be the new placation conversation.
“This land is your land, this land is my land,” but not for one local voice, the wild horse advocate.