What the Omnibus Spending Bill Means for Wild Horses and Burros

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(May 4, 2017)… This week, Congress passed an Omnibus spending bill to keep the government running through the remainder of fiscal year 2017, which ends on September 30. It’s expected to be signed into law soon by President Trump. 

The bill contains both good news and bad news for America’s wild horses and burros. Here are the highlights:

Maintaining Slaughter Bans

On the plus side: Congress maintained the prohibition on funding for USDA inspections of horse slaughter plants, keeping them shuttered in the U.S. for at least five more months. In addition, the Congress maintained the ban on destroying healthy wild horses and burros or selling them for slaughter. We appreciate the members Congress, and particularly the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairs, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and Rep. Ken Calvert and ranking members Senator Tom Udall and Rep. Betty McCollum, who stood firm against slaughtering America’s wild horses.

Section 116: “Transfer of Excess Animals”

On the negative side: For the first time since the Burns Amendment was passed in 2004, Congress used a spending bill to weaken the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act. In this case, Section 116 of the Omnibus, Humane Transfer of Excess Animals” (page 804 of this link) authorizes the BLM to strip wild horses and burros of federal protection and “immediately” transfer them to other state and local agencies for use as “work animals.”

According to the BLM, the intent of this language is to facilitate the transfer of not more than 200 horses a year to agencies like the Border Patrol, but its implications are much broader. With no limit to the number of horses that can be transferred and no definition of work animal, the language has the potential to create a back-door route to killing potentially thousands of so-called “excess” horses.

For over a year, AWHC lobbied against this provision (read our letters to Congress here and here.) As late as Friday, we were told that the language had been removed from the Omnibus spending bill, but it was included as a last minute addition to the final bill that passed the Congress this week.

To address some of our community's concerns, Interior Appropriations Subcommittee members added language to prohibit “euthanasia” of wild horses and burros in addition to language negotiated by the Humane Society of the United States to prohibit the commercial slaughter of transferred horses. We appreciate their efforts. However, due to lack of  provisions for enforcement and transparency, no penalties for violations, and loopholes in the language, we remain gravely concerned about the way in which this language could be used to dispose of  "excess" horses or burros.

As just one example, the language, as passed, would allow receiving agencies to kill healthy wild horses of “advanced age” -- a term that is undefined and could be used to describe a range of middle- to older-aged horses – with consent of a veterinarian. It also does not prohibit the receiving agency from transferring horses or burros to a third party, which could then legally “euthanize” them.

While the intent of Congress to prohibit slaughter and killing healthy horses is clear, there is no escaping the fact that this new law is open for abuse. Despite good intentions, Congress has created a vehicle that can be used to deliver unlimited numbers of wild horses and burros into the hands of the very state and local agencies that actively lobby for their destruction. While our collective lobbying efforts succeeded in making dangerous legislative language less bad, we do not view this as a victory for wild horses and burros.

Report Language: Directives from Congress

Included by reference in the Omnibus spending bill are Senate Report language (see page 13), and the House Report language (see pages 9-10).

While this language repeatedly stresses the need for humane management, care and treatment of wild horses and burros, and urges the BLM to implement the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences for scientific reform, it also includes a troubling directive for “accelerated gathers” in order to achieve Appropriate Management Levels (AMLs) in Herd Management Areas. This directive, if taken literally, could mean the removal of as many as 50,000 more wild horses and burros from the range. Of course, the BLM has no where to put 50,000 captured mustangs, and this directive easily could be used to increase pressure to lift the ban on slaughter in 2018 appropriations. 

180 Days to Create a “Humane Plan”

The Omnibus also gives the BLM 180 days within enactment of the bill to create a plan to maintain long-term sustainable populations on the range in a humane manner. This could be a great opportunity for the BLM to come up with a plan that keeps wild horses on the range by implementing humane fertility control to reduce population growth rates and giving these animals a fairer share of resources on the small amount of public lands designated as their habitat.

The definition of humane, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. For years, ranchers have maintained without evidence that wild horses are overpopulating and starving on the range, and the most humane option is to round them up and send them to slaughter

Where the Administration will come down on this issue is an open question, but early signals from Interior Secretary Zinke are serious  cause for concern. As reported by Environment & Energy News, this is what Zinke told the Public Lands Council, a lobbying group for ranchers who graze livestock on public lands, in March:

"It's a really sensitive issue because there's a lot of America that looks at a horse as a pet, and there's a lot of Westerners that look at a horse as livestock. But we should all look at a horse as a managed asset. Because overgrazing a horse is no different than cattle out there or anything else… We are going to take action on the horses. I got it.”

Mr. Zinke needs to know 80 percent of Americans -- including 83 percent of Westerners - oppose horse slaughter. Will an Administration that was elected on a promise of returning government to the people heed the will of the people to protect our iconic mustangs? 

America’s wild horses may really be making their last stand under this Administration, and where Congress comes down on what constitutes “humane” treatment will ultimately determine their fate. While much is up in the air, this much is certain: If ever there was a time to speak up for wild horses and burros loudly and with a unified voice, this is that time.