Unmasking Ben Masters

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By: Suzanne Roy, Executive Director, American Wild Horse Campaign

Ben Masters made a movie about riding mustangs on a long-distance journey through the West. It’s an apt metaphor, not only for the place of the mustang in the history of America – the horse we literally rode in on – but also on Masters’ career trajectory. He’s using the mustang as his free ride to national attention. Even National Geographic has bought in to his carefully curated image.

But Masters is no advocate for wildlife or wild horses. He’s stated that the only reason he used mustangs in his film, Unbranded, is because they were the cheapest horses he could find that would get the job done. And get the job done they did – carrying him successfully on his 3,000-mile trek from Mexico to Canada and providing him a ticket to his 15 minutes of fame.

To Masters, mustangs are a disposable commodity. That’s why he now advocates for the mass killing of nearly 90,000 of them. Masters’ plan would decimate wild herds, leaving behind the number of wild horses that existed in 1971 when Congress declared these iconic animals to be “fast disappearing” and in need of protection. And it would cause massive suffering…. Tens of thousands of innocent, intelligent and magnificent wild horses would be massacred, entire families could be gunned down

As anyone who has owned a horse knows, there is no way to humanely kill wild horses on this massive scale. “Euthanasia” isn’t a “tool in the toolbox” for wild horse management. It’s a weapon, and Masters and his allies – big game hunters, the National Rifle Association, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and others – are aiming it right at America’s historic and beloved icons of the West.

Their agenda: to reduce the wild horse population down to extinction levels to maximize grazing for livestock and hunted species on our public lands. This lethal plan is opposed by 80 percent of Americans, while only 6 percent of Americans hunt, and only 2 percent of American beef comes from cattle grazed on public lands.

Here are the top five clues to Masters’ real pro-livestock, pro-hunting, anti-mustang agenda:

Clue #1: Masters refuses to acknowledge the faulty scientific basis of wild horse overpopulation claims.

The claims of wild horse overpopulation are based on the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM imposed wild horse and burro population limits, misleadingly called the “Appropriate” Management Levels (AMLs)). Masters and others repeatedly and misleadingly refer to this as the carrying capacity of the land for wild horses.

Carrying capacity is a scientific term for the number of horses the land can sustain. But there’s no science behind the BLM’s AMLs. Here’s what the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), in a 2013 report, said about the subject:

  • “The committee could not identify a science-based rationale used by BLM to allocate forage and habitat resources to various uses within the constraints of protecting rangeland health and listed species and given the multiple-use mandate” (p. 267).
  • “How AMLs are established, monitored, and adjusted is not transparent to stakeholders, supported by scientific information, or amenable to adaptation with new information and environmental and social change” (p. 11).
  • “AMLs are a focal point of controversy between BLM and the public. It is therefore necessary to develop and maintain standards for transparency, quality, and equity in AML establishment, adjustment, and monitoring” (p. 11).

In reality, AMLs have nothing to do with carrying capacity of the land for wild horses. Instead, these population limits represent the number of horses the BLM has decided to allow to live in designated areas of public lands after allocating more than two-thirds of available forage to private livestock. Masters has a degree in wildlife science, but you won’t hear him talking about the lack of science behind his wild horse overpopulation claims.

Clue #2: He scapegoats wild horses for range damage caused by livestock.

Here are some facts about livestock and wild horses that you won’t hear Masters utter, even though they have been brought to his attention numerous times:

As wildlife biologist Erik Mulvar once said, “Suggesting that wild horses are a problem for sage grouse [threatened western bird], while ignoring the comparatively massive impacts of cattle and sheep, is a bit like suggesting that the captain of the Titanic should be worried about the ice cubes in his passengers’ cocktails rather than the icebergs floating in the North Atlantic.”

The West doesn’t have a wild horse overpopulation problem. It has a cattle and sheep overpopulation problem, but you won’t hear Masters, a self-avowed conservationist, utter a word about that.

Clue #3: He misrepresents the viability of alternative management options.

Predators: Masters and his hunting and ranching/hunting allies repeatedly claim that wild horses have no natural predators. But their mantra is  disproven by science. As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Philipps writes in his new book, Wild Horse Country, “Horses do have natural predators, and mountain lions can have a significant impact on wild horse populations.”  But in most areas of the West, mountain lion populations are decimated by sport hunting and the ranching industry, which benefits from a free federal predator-killing program that removes mountain lions, coyotes, and other native carnivores from public and private lands where livestock graze.

Masters aims to restore “a thriving natural ecological balance” on the range by rounding up and slaughtering tens of thousands of wild horses and burros. But as anyone with a basic knowledge of biology knows, there can be no thriving natural ecological balance in the absence of predators. However, you won’t hear Masters – the self-proclaimed wildlife advocate and environmentalist -- pressing for their protection.

Fertility Control: In 2013, the NAS recommended that the BLM use fertility control as an alternative to its current practice of rounding up and removing wild horses from the range and storing them in holding pens and pastures. The NAS called that practice “expensive and unproductive for the BLM and the public it serves,” and concluded that the roundups were making the situation worse by “facilitating high rates of population growth,” which “maximizes the number of animals which must be removed through holding facilities.”

The PZP fertility control vaccine has 30 years of peer-reviewed science showing that it is 97 percent effective in preventing pregnancy in inoculated wild mares. Yet, in a recent article, Masters claims the vaccine’s efficacy is just 20 percent.

Clue #4: He claims that wild horses are an invasive species, despite established science showing that the horse is a native, reintroduced North American wildlife species.

The ancestry of wild horses inhabiting the remote areas of the West today can be traced  to the horses brought to this continent over five centuries ago by Spanish explorers. Hunters and ranchers use this history to slap the “feral” label on mustangs in an effort to delegitimize their presence on the Western range. But according to renowned paleontologist Ross MacPhee, Curator of Mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the term "feral" has no biological significance. It is not a scientific term; rather, it describes a species' relationship to humans.

Dr. MacPhee says that the fact that wild horses' ancestors were once domesticated "doesn't change the fact that all horses today are the same species" – and that the species evolved on this continent. He continues, "There is (no mammal) more American, that is still with us today, than horses." In correct scientific terms, wild horses are a native, reintroduced North American wildlife species, but you won’t hear Masters, a self-proclaimed wildlife expert, acknowledge that fact.

Clue: #5 He thinks killing tens of thousands wild horses “is not a fun topic to discuss” but advocates for it anyway, against the wishes of 80 percent of Americans.

Masters stands behind his recommendation, as a member of the BLM’s National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, that the agency kill or sell for slaughter many of the 43,000 wild horses and burros in holding facilities and the 46,000 (wrongly) considered to be “excess” on the range. At this month’s Advisory Board meeting in Grand Junction, Colorado, Masters made a recommendation that the BLM phase out long-term holding pastures for wild horses in three years. What would happen to the 32,146 wild horses currently housed in those pastures? “They would be destroyed,” he replied. But when he attempted to explain his recommendation in an online post, Masters declined to discuss how his recommendation would be carried out. How exactly does one kill 32,146 wild horses? Instead of facing up to the ghastly implications of his recommendations, he punts, moving on because it “is not a fun topic to discuss.”

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothes

Ben Masters fancies himself a conservationist in the tradition of Robert Redford, while he promotes the anti-environment agenda of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Rifle Association, and Safari Club International. But we all know Robert Redford and what he stands for. Of America’s horses, Redford states:

“America is the home of the horse. People come to America to find freedom, and the horse helped us build this free nation. We are not a horse-eating culture; we are a horse-loving people. To kill the horse is simply un-American. We as a people are ready to implement solutions for the challenges facing our wild iconic mustangs as we provide education and sanctuaries which support respect and a good life for all of America’s horses.”

Ben Masters is no Robert Redford. He’s no horse whisperer. As a mouthpiece for the ranching and hunting industries, Masters puts an appealing face on the horrific plan to destroy tens of thousands of American mustangs. But if you look behind the carefully crafted image, his real agenda becomes apparent. It’s not the agenda of the American public. Nor is it the intent of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act , a unanimously passed Act of Congress, that designated America’s mustangs and burros as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” to be protected “from capture, branding, harassment, or death” as “an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.”

Note of thanks to Ellie Phipps Price, AWHC board president and founder of Montgomery Creek Ranch Preserve, and Kat Wilder, Colorado writer and wild horse advocate, for their contributions to this piece.