What will be the fate of the mustang?

Local advocates worry about the future of America’s iconic wild horses

Cohasset couple Helen Madeleine and Ron Haberman want to see more public lands opened up as rangelands for America’s wild horses.

Cohasset couple Helen Madeleine and Ron Haberman want to see more public lands opened up as rangelands for America’s wild horses.

Photo By melissa daugherty

Helen Madeleine and her husband, Ron Haberman, drove from their home in Cohasset to the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds last week to see a herd of mustangs, a fascinating wild breed whose mystique is closely tied to American heritage and Western folklore.

Officials from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management trucked in the animals from the Litchfield Wild Horse and Burro Facility, a temporary holding area in a remote, unincorporated high-desert community east of Susanville. On Friday (April 15), 31 horses, 10 burros and a mule were unloaded in Chico and segregated, primarily by sex, into a series of temporary corrals in a field on the south side of the fairgrounds in preparation for a silent auction the following day.

Ranging in ages from yearlings to a single 4-year-old, the horses stood nervously in tight herds, as dozens of onlookers studied the stock during the afternoon preview. All of the creatures—a colorful lot that included roans, pintos, buckskins, palominos and duns—were available through the BLM’s adoption program, and officials from the agency were hopeful considering the decent turnout of perspective adoptees.

BLM spokesman Jeff Fontana said adoption rates have plummeted in recent years due to the collapse of the economy, along with a number of other factors, including rising fuel and feed prices. Additionally, there appears to be a glut of horses in general.

“What hasn’t changed is the enthusiasm for these horses,” said Fontana, as he surveyed people admiring the creatures.

The sight was a bittersweet one for Madeleine and Haberman, who, unlike most of the mustang admirers at the event, do not think the creatures should be put up for adoption. That’s because they are adamantly opposed to the herd-management policies of the BLM, which is charged with overseeing the herds roaming 10 western states from Montana to California.

The BLM rounds up animals when their numbers grow unsustainable, and offers them for adoption at several sites throughout the nation.

Virtually untouched by humans, with the exception of minimal handling for health care, such as vaccinations, and castrations for male animals, the horses at the Chico adoption site appeared extremely skittish of the onlookers.

“They are scared to death,” Haberman said, moments after the animals shied from the fence as a wrangler tossed in hay from a moving truck. “They’re not used to people.”

One of the BLM horses at a recent adoption event.

Photo By melissa daugherty

Most of the horses at the Chico event came from the Twin Peaks Herd Management Area in Lassen County and Washoe County, Nevada. The animals represented just a handful of the 1,799 horses and burros gathered there last fall during a month-long effort. Fontana said the nearby Litchfield facility is currently home to 600 animals.

Many of the horses that are deemed unadoptable, because they’re too old or simply unwanted, end up in permanent holding facilities in the Midwest. Fontana acknowledged that the animals’ care is a major drain on the BLM. Upkeep for the 27,600 horses and burros in long-term facilities and the 13,900 residing in short-term sites, such as the Litchfield corrals, costs $36.9 million of the Wild Horse and Burro Program’s $63 million annual budget.

A mustang advocate for 25 years and longtime equestrian, Madeleine pointed out that the public isn’t allowed into the long-term facilities. Like others against the removal of the animals from public lands, she believes one of the true intentions of BLM is to keep the horses from competing with livestock for feed. Public lands are leased to ranchers for grazing at $1.35 per head per month—an amount mustang advocates consider “welfare ranching.”

She, too, noted the expense of keeping the horses in long-term facilities and she said there’s a simple solution.

“Basically, what we want is for the land to be given back [to the equines] and for the 40,000 horses in holding to be released,” she said, referencing the Restore Our American Mustangs Act, or ROAM. The bill calls for restoration of land for the animals. It passed in the House but stalled in the Senate about two years ago.

Estimates of the number of wild horses vary wildly, depending on the source. As of February 2010, BLM estimated 33,700 wild horses roamed BLM lands. However, several mustang advocacy groups believe that fewer than 15,000 horses remain.

BLM officials maintain that the roundups are crucial for the health of the herds as well as the health of the environment, which is home to wild game, big and small. Fontana pointed out that livestock is managed through permits and gaming helps manage wildlife populations.

Ideally, BLM would like to see the number of adoptees match the number of animals brought in through roundups, Fontana said. To that end, the agency is trying to drum up interest at special adoption events. Organizers were disappointed that the one in Chico resulted in the adoption of just five of the horses and two burros. They fared much better a couple of weeks ago in Red Bluff (18 animals found homes).

Organizers are hoping for better odds on the last weekend of the month, when 40 more animals are scheduled for a stop in Livermore. Similar events by the Litchfield crew will continue in various cities into September.

BLM also partners with the Mustang Heritage Foundation for a series of 100-day training competitions called the Extreme Mustang Makeover. For that contest, a sizable purse is rewarded for the most impressively trained wild mustang, and the horses are then auctioned off.

While euthanasia of unwanted, healthy horses was a consideration a few years ago (it’s allowed under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act), Fontana said that the agency’s director has made it clear that option is off the table.

That’s little consolation for advocates like Madeleine, however, who said action needs to be taken swiftly to keep the herd levels viable.

“It would be terrible to see these animals go totally extinct,” she said.