The battle between livestock lobbyists and animal advocates over the fate of tens of thousands of wild horses and burros is heating up thanks to increased attention brought on by the Trump administration.
In July, the House Appropriations Committee voted to remove language from the Interior Department’s budget that prohibits the “destruction of healthy, unadopted wild horses and burros” managed by the Bureau of Land Management in the American West.
Groups like the American Wild Horse Campaign that seek to protect the animals have described the change as “a death sentence” for more than 46,000 wild horses and burros cared for by the BLM and an additional 40,000 loose on the range considered in excess of “appropriate management levels.” On the other side, rangeland advocates describe euthanasia as unfortunate but necessary for protecting land they say has been ravaged by overgrazing from animals that lack any natural predators.
Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., sits on the House Appropriations Committee and supported lifting the prohibition, which was pushed forth by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah. During the debate, Amodei said, “The reality is we have a problem. We have to face it.” Later, in an interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal editorial board, he characterized the change as more of a statement to horse advocates that they need to support birth control efforts than an endorsement of euthanasia as an option to be deployed immediately.
The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to consider its version of the budget and could vote as soon as this week. Neither of Nevada’s senators sits on that committee or the related subcommittee; however, an agreement with the House committee and congressional approval after that would have a tremendous effect on Nevada. The state’s 83 herd management areas contain more than half of the wild horses and burros in the U.S.
Meanwhile, the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, an independent advisory board that creates an annual set of recommendations for the BLM, met recently in Grand Junction, Colo. As it had in 2016, the advisory board recommended the BLM widen its herd management techniques to include lethal options. It also recommended the BLM phase out long-term housing of animals and apply the cost savings to on-range management and adoptions. Wildlife Management Chair Ben Masters wrote on his blog after the meeting that the euthanasia of horses should not be considered unusual or extreme: “People euthanize millions of dogs and cats every year, bison are culled in Yellowstone to prevent overgrazing, and elk are culled in Rocky Mountain National Park.”
The advisory board is exactly that — advisory. After last year’s recommendations sparked public outrage, the BLM released an official statement saying it was not considering euthanasia as a solution. The BLM has given no indication that it has changed that position.
Why now is the time to weigh in
Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, said she was “cautiously optimistic” the Senate would be more favorable to the protection of wild horses and burros than the House. Still, advocates were not taking anything lightly.
The back-and-forth between lawmakers and animal advocates is nothing new. Because the protections for wild horses and burros are attached to the budget approved by Congress, advocates like Roy have to push to keep them in place every year. However, the shift in administration following last year’s presidential election has resulted in more attention on the issue and increased tension.
President Donald Trump’s proposed budget slashed funding to the BLM and removed language prohibiting the bureau from selling horses to buyers who intended to slaughter them. (Eating horses has never been mainstream in the United States; however, there is a foreign market for the meat.) The move was estimated to save $10 million next year. Trump-appointed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has called existing birth control efforts “by and large, a failure” and expressed a desire to host a wild horse seminar in Nevada to craft a management plan. Advocates have interpreted this as a sign that the administration would prioritize horse management.
“It is scarier than it has been before,” Roy says. “Previously, there were certainly pushes — (Rep. Chris) Stewart has been pushing a pro-slaughter agenda for years — but there was an administration opposed to slaughter. … We are closer than ever before given the new administration and this new push.”
That tension may be seeping to the local level. The Nevada Department of Agriculture announced Oct. 25 that it would end its partnership with the American Wild Horse Campaign on a fertility control program in the Virginia Range in Northern Nevada. The advocacy group said the state gave no warning of dissatisfaction with the five-year public-private collaboration. Agriculture officials claim the group refused to provide the resources necessary for the program.
That announcement came a day after the city of Reno issued a warning to motorists to look out for the animals when driving. Four wild horses have been struck and killed by vehicles since Oct. 1.
According to AWHC field director Deniz Bolbol, the organization focuses on the fertility program while other organizations respond to horses in roadways. She says that division of labor was approved by the Agriculture Department and has been in place for more than a year.
“It doesn’t make sense to end the whole agreement,” she says. “If they were acting in good faith as a partner, they wouldn’t have blindsided us. They could have said, ‘Hey, we have some issues we need to work out.’ ”
She added, “It seems very political.”