FoA has filed a petition to list wild horses as endangered under the Endangered Species Act to put an end to a legacy of abuse
By Jennifer Barnes, Staff Attorney, Wildlife Law Program
“Of all the brute creation the horse is the most admired by men. Combining beauty with usefulness, all countries and all ages yield it their admiration. But, though the finest specimen of its kind, a domestic horse will ever lack that magic and indescribable charm that beams like a halo around the simple name of freedom.” –Matthew Field (1839)
One hundred years ago, two to five million horses roamed freely across healthy western ranges in the United States. To make room for commercially exploitable animals, such as cattle and sheep, the government established a goal to substantially reduce the number of free wild horses.
Since 1971, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has removed nearly 230,000 wild horses and burros from their habitat, and completely eradicated them from more than 20 million acres of public land designated by Congress as habitat for these animals. The goal today is to keep the population at or below 26,677.
BLM recently budgeted $6 million for helicopter contracts to gather wild horses in 2014 and $1.5 million for plans to sterilize them, despite that it is widely accepted that current management of wild horses is ineffective and unsustainable, not to mention cruel.
Their “gather” methods generally consist of flying a helicopter close to the ground, knocking up dirt and debris, and forcing horses, including small foals, to run into trap sites miles away. Not only it is difficult for the horses to run long distances from the helicopter in a state of fear, but the BLM then transfers them to long-term, crowded, holding facilities. There, horses suffer due to conﬁnement in close quarters with unfamiliar horses, and the loss of or separation from lifelong herd mates. If this abuse continues, the American wild horse is likely to go extinct.
One thing the government has not tried: Leaving them alone.
To help make this the new reality for America’s wild horses, Friends of Animals has submitted a petition to list wild horses as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Listing the animals would provide needed regulation to halt further exploitation of this species, including making it illegal for the BLM to gather wild horses.
Because FoA filed the petition, the secretary of the interior is mandated to make certain findings on whether or not the petition is warranted. If it is deemed warranted, the secretary must then commence a status review of the species and make a final listing determination within 12 months of the initial petition.
For centuries, people have attempted to manipulate and “manage” wild animals, but they often forget to step back and consider the inherent value of the animals and the benefits of allowing them to live freely.
Wild horses were in America long before humans. Fossil records indicate that modern wild horses had a large geographic distribution across North America, originating there about 1.7 million years ago. Scientists believe that approximately 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, hunting by prehistoric humans, climate change (and resulting vegetation shifts), or a combination of the two, may have eradicated horses in this continent or at least significantly reduced their numbers here. The wild horses in America today are likely descendants from domesticated horses brought to America by Spanish conquistadors in the mid-1500s. Some domestic horses escaped or were released from captivity onto western rangelands and likely mixed with horses who evolved on the continent. These horses quickly adapted to freedom and filled the niche of free-roaming horses on western rangelands, millions of years in the making. The fact that horses were domesticated before they were reintroduced matters little from a biological or behavioral viewpoint.
Wild horses thrive without any human intervention. They live in highly structured, hard-won family groups, called bands, generally consisting of several females (mares) led by a dominant male (stallion). Stallions and mares form long-term, sometimes lifelong relationships. Each horse plays an important role in the band. The lead stallion and mare look over the band and prevent overcrowding and overgrazing. The band stallion will fight to defend against intrusion or takeover. Over time, each band will search out and establish its own home range, which in drier regions could cover hundreds of square miles on an annual basis.
Legacy of exploitation
Exploitation of wild horses started around the 1920s, when they were trapped and sold for chicken-feed or pet food. Around the same time, American ranchers began to pack cattle and sheep onto public land to graze. Unlike wild horses and other wild animals, cattle concentrate in one place for long periods of time grazing on grasses and trampling on most vegetation, causing large-scale degradation of rangeland.
Rather than acknowledge that their own manipulation of the landscape and excessive animal farming were causing damage, many Americans, along with the government transferred blame to the less “marketable” animal—the wild horse. From 1934 to 1963, the U.S. government paid private contractors to kill wild horses on federal land, and allowed ranchers to round up and shoot any horses they wanted.
Outraged at the practice of extinguishing wild horses, some people stepped up and encouraged Congress to pass the Hunting Wild Horses and Burros on Public Lands Act in 1959, which banned the hunting of wild horses on federal land from aircraft or motorized vehicles. After passage of this law, ranchers and others continued to sell and slaughter wild horses. In 1971, upon finding that “these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene” and that they “contribute to the diversity of life forms within the nation and enrich the lives of the American people,” Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act to protect wild horses.
Unfortunately, the act does little to ensure wild horses are actually protected, so the BLM continues to drive them off the range through so called “gather” or “round up” operations.
A series of amendments, continued pressure from ranchers and aggressive, uniformed management has stripped wild horses of their habitat and reduced their population to an alarmingly low number.
Clearly, commercially exploited cattle and sheep receive priority over wildlife. Of the 245 million acres of public land managed by the BLM, 155 million is open to livestock grazing (virtually all BLM land outside of Alaska). By contrast, wild horses are restricted to just 26.9 million acres, which they must share with privately owned cattle and sheep. Even though wild horses are restricted to a small fraction (approximately 11 percent) of BLM land, the agency routinely allocates the vast majority of forage on this land to privately-owned animals instead of wild horses.
BLM needs to be held accountable
According to a report the National Academy of Sciences released last year, the Wild Horse and Burro Program has not used scientifically rigorous methods to model the effects of management actions on the animals, or to assess the availability and use of forage on rangelands. The report explained that it is not clear how BLM determines that it should conduct a gather or whether gathers are necessary. In the 2013 fiscal year, BLM spent $4.8 million on gathers and removals, and $46.2 million on holding costs. The academy report concluded that “the continuation of ‘business-as-usual’ practices will be expensive and unproductive for BLM.”
BLM’s aggressive removal of wild horses to keep them at an artificially low number not only negatively affects the individual horses, and the genetic viability of the herd, it is also short-sighted and ineffective because it prompts short-term population growth as the horses attempt to reach a healthy or stable population.
But if given adequate habitat, wild horse bands will establish home ranges to achieve a balance with the natural resources in their territory. In fact, allowing wild horses to roam freely will likely benefit the range. Wild horses can prevent catastrophic fires because they are able to consume dry, fire-prone vegetation over vast areas of the west. Furthermore, 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. Additionally, other animals depend on horses to make certain resources, such as water, available. For example, in the winter horses are able to break through the ice to expose water to a variety of species. However, these benefits cannot be realized when wild horses are limited by continued gathers and constricted by arbitrary boundaries.