Wild horses capture the American public's imagination like no other animal. The image of magnificent mustangs running wild on the vast Western range embodies the best of America - our independent, free and untamed spirit. America's mustangs are even protected by an act of Congress that recognizes them as "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West" that "enrich the lives of the American people."
So why are these animals being systematically eliminated by our government today? The answer lies in the chokehold that commercial interests have on federal public lands policy.
Incoming Interior Secretary Sally Jewell promised in her confirmation hearing to strike a better balance between the competing interests of industry and environmental protection. Her success - or failure - could literally determine whether America's iconic wild horses have a future on public lands in the West.
Responsibility for managing the nation's wild horses and burros lies with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency of the Interior Department. For four decades, the BLM - an agency operated by and for the livestock industry - has waged a war on America's wild horses.
The ranchers who influence BLM policy view wild horses as competition for cheap, taxpayer-subsidized livestock grazing on public lands. They want them gone, and the BLM has been only too happy to comply.
Using low-flying helicopters to stampede and round up wild horses, the federal government removes them by the thousands from public lands in the West each year. Once removed, the horses are warehoused in holding facilities. The BLM now stockpiles an astounding 50,000 wild horses in government holding facilities. By contrast, fewer than 32,000 remain free on the range.
The approach is costly, both to the taxpayers and to the horses, who lose their freedom and families, and sometimes their lives. As the pace of the roundups has accelerated, the cost of the federal wild horse program has doubled, from $40.6 million in 2009 to $78 million this fiscal year. Taxpayers are on the hook for $108,117 every day just to feed the stockpiled horses. And that doesn't even take into consideration the estimated $500 million annual cost to American taxpayers for subsidizing the welfare ranching system that is driving wild horses from the range in the first place!
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar promised to reform this program but delivered more of the same. Under his tenure, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has removed 37,000 wild horses from public lands in the West.
There is no question about the endgame of this unsustainable and irrational approach to wild horse management: to manufacture a crisis in which slaughter becomes the only possible economic solution.
But Americans don't eat horses. Americans overwhelmingly oppose horse slaughter, and we don't believe that the mass killing of our national icons is the solution to the government's mismanagement woes.
The agency denies slaughter is the goal. But it's already happened with the sale of "truckload after truckload" of captured mustangs to a known kill buyer, Tom Davis. How can the BLM guarantee that no federally protected wild horses will ever again end up being brutally slaughtered when it continues to sell wild horses for as little as $10 a piece? It can't.
This is a solvable issue. Proven alternatives like fertility control stop the bloodshed, save us money and keep wild horses where they belong: on the range. This is the course our government should be pursuing for its wild horse program. It's a no brainer.
Which brings us back to Sally Jewell. As an outdoor enthusiast and former CEO of REI, Jewell recognizes the economic benefits of the multi-billion-dollar-a-year outdoor recreation industry. She knows that protection of natural resources is vital to this growing segment of our economy. Will she achieve a better balance between the livestock, oil/gas, mining and other industries that exploit our public lands and the protection of the environment? Will she deliver necessary cultural change to an agency that treats wild horses as pests to be hunted down with helicopters, rather than natural resources to be protected for future generations?
The answers to these questions are unknown at this point. What we do know is that wild horses are making their last stand in the American West. Failure is not an option.
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