On Wednesday, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced a plan to revamp the federal Wild Horse and Burro Program and establish government-run preserves in the Midwest and East. While we agree that the Program is in dire need of an overhaul and we applaud the government's commitment to avoid the mass-killing of horses in its care, the plan outlined by Secretary Salazar raises several concerns.
The underlying premise used by Mr. Salazar to justify his new initiative is itself flawed. His statements perpetuate BLM's spurious claims of overpopulation and range degradation: Mr. Salazar assures us that wild horses, who were deemed to be "fast disappearing from the American scene" when the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed, "have returned to rapid growth," with a population estimated at 33,000 head, from a supposed 25,000 in 1971. In fact, BLM's first census, conducted in 1974, found 42,000 horses. In a later study, the National Academy of Sciences found BLM's population estimate to have been "undoubtedly low to an unknown, but perhaps substantial, degree."
How can a 25% net population loss amount to "rapid growth"? How can a species that constitutes only half a percent of large grazing animals on public lands be scapegoated time and time again for range degradation? As a rancher himself, surely Mr. Salazar is aware of the millions of head of private cattle that graze the same public range as America's few thousand wild horses.
Based on this dubious overpopulation claim, Mr. Salazar wants to continue removing wild horses from their rightful Western range: Over 30 million dollars will be spent in fiscal year 2010 to capture over 12,000 wild horses and burros!
Removing thousands upon thousands of horses from their legally allocated range to move them into government-run facilities is not in keeping with the intent of the '71 Act, which aimed at preserving the horses "where presently found." This was reaffirmed last August by the US District Court for the District of Columbia in its decision to prevent the capture of Colorado's West Douglas herd. The Court stated in part: "Congress did not authorize BLM to manage the wild horses by corralling them for private maintenance or long-term care as non-wild free-roaming animals off the public lands." The Court deemed removal for long-term care to be contrary to Congress's intent to protect the horses from capture "as components of the public lands."
On a more positive note, we applaud Mr. Salazar's acknowledgement of the horses' value as an ecotourism resource. But wild horses should be viewed in their natural Western environment and expressing their natural social behavior. Captive, gelded, non-reproducing herds hardly convey the majesty of these icons of the West.
Of course, the devil is in the details, and we are withholding further comment until the specifics of Mr. Salazar's plan are fleshed out: how will the new "preserves" differ for BLM's current long-term holding facilities, also located in the Midwest? Will the preserves be established for the benefit of the 32,000 horses currently held by BLM, or will they constitute an outlet for further roundups? Will the remaining Western herds be managed in the wild at genetically viable levels?
While we applaud the government's efforts toward a more humane approach, Secretary Salazar's new initiative is another step toward the privatization of America's iconic wild herds and away from the survival of the American wild horse in its natural state as an integral part of the Western landscape. More than ever, a moratorium on roundups is in order until actual numbers of wild horses and burros on public lands have been independently assessed, and legally-mandated range studies have been conducted. The ROAM Act needs to be passed so that the horses can reclaim the more than 19 million acres they have lost since being granted federal protection.
On behalf of America's wild horses, thank you for your support,
The AWHPC Team
American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign