By Kate Bennett
Here in New England, many people hardly think about the wild horses and burros in the United States. Many horses and burros still run free in many of the western states, but there have been many different claims about how long this can continue. Some organizations claim that the wild horses are overpopulating and taking away resources from other animals. Some other organizations say that there are larger numbers of cattle on the ranges than horses and burros, and that the number of cattle needs to be lowered in order for all of the animals to have enough resources.
I interviewed Mary Koncel at the American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC), who explained that there are currently many misconceptions about the state of the wild horses. One myth being spread about the wild horses is that they are starving. Mary Koncel explained that this is a myth, because of the numbers of livestock competing with wild horses and burros, and that that is disproportionate. The federal government is charging money for private ranchers to graze on public land. In 2017, the grazing fee for 1 AUM (Animal Unit Monthly — each cow and calf take one AUM a month to be supported, so yearly 12 AUM) is $1.87 on private land, and ranges from $15 to $20 a month on public land. Many ranchers are corporate ranchers. Taxpayers are getting the bill for this subsidize ranging.
The issue of wild horses starving and not having enough access to water has been promoted successfully. Despite the fact that there are far more livestock than wild horses and burros living in the same areas, the wild horses and burros are being blamed for the lack of resources and losing their water supply. But in actuality, as explained by the American Wild Horse Campaign, the burros have been digging and creating their own water sources and then leaving them for other animals to use. These animals are actually adapting to the changes in their surroundings.
Reports gathered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) bust the myth that wild horses and burros are starving because they scale the horses’ conditions on a body scale. All of the horses came in between 3 and 5 on the scale, which means they have good body conditions, especially for wild horses. If they had been starving, their scores would have been lower. An environmental impact statement generated by the BLM stated that all of the wild horses are in good condition.
One of the biggest issues right now, according to Ms. Koncel, is the competition between the wild horses and burros, livestock, and extractive industries (mining, gold mines, oil). Mining groups are opposed to having wild horses and burros on the land even though the land is designated for these animals.
Mary Koncel explained that the AWHC understands that the wild horses and burros need to be managed in a way that is humane and cost-effective to taxpayers. Currently, the BLM is rounding up mustangs and putting them in holding pens where they are crammed among other horses and left to sit until someone comes along to adopt them. In 2013, the National Academy of Science generated a report that stated that the rounding up of wild horses is a failed practice, and that the BLM is actually facilitating a higher birth rate, which contributes to the issue of overpopulation. The report also explained that there is no science behind the BLM’s appropriate management levels, and that they are currently being questioned.
The National Academy of Science is now recommending managing horses on the range using the organic contraceptive porcine zona pellucida (PZP), and to reduce livestock grazing instead of wild horses. This method of birth control works for one year on the mare (female horse), and after about three years it can make the mare unable to reproduce for life. PZP is administered to these horses by shooting it at them from a distance and injecting them with it. In 2016, the BLM used birth control on 460 mares.
Mary Koncel explained to me that the AWHC likes to base their positions off data and science. The AWHC explains that there is enough land to manage these horses, but the government and involved organizations need to start looking at all aspects of the issues on the land, not just the wild horses. The livestock industry on those lands needs to be reassessed and other means of management need to be explored. Currently there are off-range pastures where the BLM pays people to provide pasture for groups of horses. The BLM spends money on that while putting less than 1 percent of its budget on PZP fertility control, even though the National Academy of Science has highly recommended it. The money being spent to take care of these horses is so high because the number of horses being adopted is not keeping up with the number being rounded up, so the BLM has to pay to take care of these horses.
Recently, the United States Senate was faced with a “spending bill that would allow for the killing or sale for slaughter of healthy wild horses and burros.” On Nov. 20, 2017, the AWHC learned that after months of campaigning against this, the Senate decided to maintain protections for wild horses and burros in the Interior and Environment appropriations bill for the 2018 fiscal year. The Senate even “directed the BLM to come up with ‘humane and politically viable’ solutions to wild horse management,” according to the AWHC. The Senate now has to negotiate with the House in a conference about the future of the wild horses and burros. The AWHC is working to find out the details about this conference. They explain that “if protections are removed and slaughter or ‘euthanizing’ begin, tens of thousands of wild horses will die. It would be an unprecedented mass slaughter. It would be tragic and defy the recommendations of scientists.”
If you are interested in getting involved with or learning more about this situation with the wild horses and burros, I suggest exploring the AWHC website, https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/, and signing up for their email updates. You can also reach out to them with any questions you may have about their campaign and the wild-horse issue. You can also check out the BLM’s wild-horse and burro website at https://edit.blm.gov/programs/wild-horse-and-burro. In Biddeford, Maine, there is a mustang rescue organization, Ever After Mustang Rescue. You can get involved and volunteer there, participate in their educational programs, visit and tour the facility, donate, and more. Find out more about this rescue at, http://www.mustangrescue.org/events.html. Finally, here is the link to the National Academy of Science’s report about the wild horses and burros: https://www.nap.edu/resource/13511/wild-horses-report-brief-final.pdf.
Moxie, a 5-year-old mustang mare who has been out of the wild for about one and a half years. Photos by Kate Bennett