In less than a month, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 will be officially considered over the hill -- turning 40. But long before this 40th birthday arrived, how, exactly, the law should be implemented has been surrounded by controversy.
The act gives the Bureau of Land Management the task of protecting the mustangs "from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands."
Today, this often means rounding up what are considered an excessive amount of mustangs that the land can support by means of helicopters driving them toward an enclosure. From there the mustangs are taken to a facility to be sold for owners to tame or sent to pasture in the Midwest, or they are given a birth control drug and released.
Ranchers, the BLM and other stakeholders see this practices as protecting the environment for both the existing horse population and other wildlife and cattle, while animal rights activists believe the horses should be allowed to multiply as they will and run free. Both groups believe their position is what's right for the animal and the environment.
The Daily recently released this video with opinions from both sides:
According to The Daily, BLM recently estimated that the 10 states with wild horses were over capacity by 12,000. The BLM factors in resources available to the horses and other wildlife and cattle living on the terrain to make estimates of ideal size populations for the wild horses.
The Daily has more:
So the agency has called for round-ups, or “gathers,” in five states this year. Records show the agency removed more than 8,400 wild horses and burros as of Sept. 30 — up from 5,200 at the same point in 2008. Horse advocates say the BLM targets its population numbers to suit ranching interests, even as ranchers say activists have cowed the Bureau into culling too few horses.
“We’re kind of used to getting beat up about this,” said Tom Gorey, a BLM spokesman in Washington D.C. “Most BLM land is managed for more than one use, so we are inherently ticking somebody off about something.”
During a gather, a helicopter finds groups of horses on the range and drives them — sometimes for miles — toward a funnel-shaped fence made of burlap. When the mustangs come into sight, cowboys on the ground release a tame “Judas” horse that’s trained to lead the wild animals into a temporary corral set up at the end of the funnel. Individual mustangs that escape are chased down on saddle horses and roped. According to contract documents obtained by The Daily, companies the government hires to carry out roundups receive between $300 and $600 per captured horse, plus expenses.
“There’s an incentive to do these roundups as quick and dirty as possible because they make more money,” said Deniz Bolbol, an activist with a mustang advocacy group called the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign.
Among the mustangs gathered so far this year, 25 horses have died or been euthanized due to injuries, according to BLM records. Bureau officials insist helicopter roundups remain the safest, most efficient means of capturing thousands of animals spread over millions of acres of public land.
“We just could not possibly do the job with guys riding out on horseback and lassoing them,” Gorey said. “It would be absurd.”
The Desert Independent recently reported a horse -- Old Gold -- as being euthanized. In the report, officials said that Old Gold had not been euthanized due to a "gather"-related issue. But others beg to differ, including photographer Cat Kindsfather who captured the photo below, which she believes showing Old Gold being injured and in distress during the roundup.
While some see the roundups as inhumane and advocate just leaving the horses alone -- especially since the program spends $43.2 million each year just to board captured horses -- others see the live they provide the captured horses as more human than the wilderness. The Daily continues:
“There’s no glamour out there,” said Annette Hicks, 56. Wearing a broad hat and red nylon coat, Hicks sat astride a 4-year-old dun-colored horse named Goldie, watching her family’s cattle cross a dry basin toward their winter pasture outside Cedarville.
“I feel real sorry for the wild horses out there, knowing what it takes to keep ours healthy and well-fed,” she said. “A life out there’d be miserable, don’t you think, Raymond?”
Her fellow rancher Ray Page was idling in a Ford pickup as the cattle ambled by. Just a few minutes earlier, Page had told a pair of visitors that “the wild horse is more like a stray dog or a stray cat,” saying, “they contribute nothing to our food supply, and they damage the range if there’s too many of them.”
“It depends on your perspective,” Page said. “I’d rather be a wild horse than a tame one.”
Back in 2005, as well, CBS News reported a remarkable use for the horses in helping rehabilitate troubled youths. The Mustang Project, run through Assurance Home in New Mexico, had abused and otherwise misguided young people working to help tame the horses, which would later be used as therapeutic horses.
The Atlantic recently reported that NYU's Environmental Law Journal and its Environmental Studies Program hosted a forum -- Managed to Extinction? -- to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the law. From The Atlantic's report, it was essentially a one-sided discussion of the "shell" that the Wild Horse Act has become of what it once was. The Atlantic reports that the BLM was invited to balance out the panel but declined because they "thought the session would be a two-hour diatribe against its policies and practices." The group concluded that more dialogue should happen about how best to manage and protect the mustang population.