Commentary: Slaughtering wild horses would be simplistic and cruel

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Rob Hammer, Salt Lake Tribune

Late last month, Utah’s Chris Stewart introduced an amendment to the Interior Department’s 2018 spending bill that would send thousands of America’s wild horses to slaughterhouses. This action by my own congressman disturbs me deeply, as I run a public service website devoted to raising awareness of these majestic animals and their increasingly threatened habitats.

Toward the end of the 19th century, nearly 400 years after Spanish explorers reintroduced horses to these lands of their evolutionary origin, an estimated one million mustangs roamed the American outlands. Seventy years later, slaughterhouse wranglers had reduced that number to just 17,000. The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 established defined herd areas on federal lands to protect these animals from complete annihilation, tasking the Bureau of Land Management with maintaining existing populations within prescribed levels — prescriptions they write themselves, often using debatable premises and data. 

According to a recent Idaho Law Review article (Mara C. Hurwitt, Freedom vs. Forage, 2017), the herd areas defined in 1971 encompassed 53.8 million acres. Since then, the BLM has constricted these into smaller Herd Management Areas comprising just 31.6 million acres, reducing these habitats by over forty percent. Additionally, herds have been completely zeroed out in several areas, further reducing the dedicated acreage on which horses actually roam.

But these diminishing acres are not devoted exclusively to mustangs. Subsequent legislation mandates multiple use, including commercial grazing leases. Feed availability on open ranges is quantified by “animal unit month” (AUM), the amount required to sustain one cow-calf pair for one month (or one horse, or five sheep). According to Hurwitt’s review of BLM documentation and grazing lease receipts, domestic cattle on public land currently outnumber mustangs 37 to 1, with ninety-seven percent of AUMs allocated to domestic stock.

Compounding the inequity, federal lease fees have been underpriced for decades, currently about one-tenth the private market rate for comparable rangeland. The BLM’s grazing program generated $14.5 million in 2015 with associated maintenance costs of $36.2 million. In other words, American taxpayers subsidize a relative handful of ranchers producing less than three percent of our nation’s beef at over $20 million annually just to cover costs, and nearly $110 million if we consider revenues lost to absurdly undervalued fees.

This small, heavily subsidized special interest group constitutes the loudest voice calling for removal of mustangs from federal land. Stewart’s slaughter amendment is their latest, most threatening effort. They also perpetuate numerous myths about our mustangs, pushing the false argument that horses are an invasive and destructive presence on our public lands. (And just where did humans and cows evolve?) To date, I have visited 27 of Utah’s 29 herd areas. I have frequently witnessed destruction caused by congregating herds of trampling cattle. I have yet to see a single instance of similar damage caused by our more mobile mustangs.

Clearly, the BLM’s policy of managing herd areas by periodically removing “excess” populations creates more problems than it solves, including the current situation where nearly as many mustangs live in expensive holding facilities as roam free. Stewart believes destroying these animals, along with thousands still on the range, is the answer. He is wrong.

Mustang population growth is a complex problem requiring a thoughtful solution. Various wild horse advocacy groups propose comprehensive approaches that generally include some combination of administering long-acting birth control, retiring grazing leases, increasing lease fees, reapportioning AUM allotments, protecting large predators, returning herd areas to their original acreage and repopulating zeroed areas.

Congressman Stewart’s proposal to simply slaughter these cherished symbols of our national heritage amounts to greed-driven cruelty and should be stripped from the Appropriations Bill before final Congressional approval.

Rob Hammer is proprietor of Wild Horse Tourist

Originally posted by Salt Lake Tribune