Wild horses or free-range meat?

Legislation could put America’s symbol of freedom on some Frenchman’s dinner table

Round ’em up A group of wild horses recently rounded up from a Herd Management Area near the border of Northern California and Nevada awaits processing at the Bureau of Land Management’s Litchfield Wild Horse Corral near Susanville, Calif. These horses are slated for adoption and will probably find good homes, but the future of un-adoptable horses may not be so rosy.

Round ’em up A group of wild horses recently rounded up from a Herd Management Area near the border of Northern California and Nevada awaits processing at the Bureau of Land Management’s Litchfield Wild Horse Corral near Susanville, Calif. These horses are slated for adoption and will probably find good homes, but the future of un-adoptable horses may not be so rosy.

Photo By Tom Angel

Deep in the folds of rugged and obscure mountain ranges, on snow-covered hillsides and in far-off and desolate scrublands, the four-legged soul of the American West ekes a Spartan existence out of grass, water and stamina. Fenced-off but still wild, these refugees of our past constitute the living but largely forgotten embodiment of what was once considered our national character—untamed, reclusive, slow to anger but fierce in battle. They are wild horses, and although most of us will never see one, there are some 37,000 of them existing quietly on public lands scattered across the United States.

Forget about the bald eagle, noble bird though it is. The mustang is, for common folk at least, the true symbol of America. How many schlock art paintings, public school murals, greasy diner menu covers and pickup truck windows pay tribute to the wild horse? How many cowboy songs, western movies and trashy romance novels invoke the thunderous rumble of horse hooves streaking across dusty plains; or the head-toss of a wild stallion, its nostrils flaring and breath smoke-like in the cold mountain air?

Americans—real, heartland Americans with beefy jowls and big, shiny belt buckles, not just pencil-necked, city-living animal lovers—have a connection to horses that belies the animals’ official classification as livestock. Real Americans don’t wear horsehide, they don’t hunt horses and mount their heads on parlor walls, and they sure as hell don’t eat the damn things.

And yet, with a few clicking keystrokes, a Republican senator, a real American, red-state, backslapping sonuvagun with ties to the cattle industry and the 10-gallon hat to prove it, recently paved the way for thousands of American mustangs to be sold, slaughtered, sauce-slathered and stuffed into the hungry maws of Frenchmen. (See sidebar.)

At least that’s how most of the wild-horse advocates in this country have come to see the Burns Amendment, a controversial piece of legislation sponsored by Montana Sen. Conrad Burns that strips hard-fought protections from thousands of wild horses by allowing the Bureau of Land Management to sell feral horses that are either at least 10 years old or that have failed to find homes after three attempts at adoption.

The bureau is remaining “positive and optimistic” about the prospect of finding good homes for all those horses, according to one BLM spokesman in Washington. But with 8,400 horses affected by the new law and most wild-horse sanctuaries already running at or above capacity, it is a virtual certainty that a whole lot of wild fillies will end up either as filets in foreign restaurants or as ground-up and frozen bricks of protein for zoo-kept carnivores.

Horse lovers across the country are appalled by the prospect.

Ol’ Dent Dent, a formerly wild horse named after a bowl-shaped depression on his head, is one of many trained feral horses ridden by BLM cowboys at Litchfield. Wild horses are prized for their strength and stamina but often take more training than already domesticated horses.

Photo By Tom Angel

“I think it’s an atrocity,” said Jill Starr, director of Lifesavers Wild Horse Rescue in Lancaster, Calif. “I think it was an underhanded, sneaky move that shouldn’t have happened that way. It caught everyone off guard, including the BLM. The public had no chance to comment or respond or voice their opinion, and it changed a law that has been in effect for 33 years that took a lot of effort to get in place.”

Starr’s organization recently took in 13 “un-adoptable” horses in what Starr concedes is a token effort to try to raise awareness of the issue. The BLM promptly recorded the sale on its Web site as an example of how groups are coming forward to save the animals. The site also notes that a Wyoming rescue group recently took 200 horses. But by touting these drop-in-the-bucket efforts as a success story, the BLM is really only showing how dire the situation is.

“I think everybody’s going to try their hardest,” Starr said. “But the problem as I see it is that, over the last couple of years, there has been a great number of mustangs that have come off the ranges… that have also needed sanctuary. I think [all the rescue organizations are] really stuffed to the gills—we certainly we are. We would have taken more than 13 if we didn’t already have 125 horses.”

At the Wild Horse Sanctuary in Shingletown, Calif., Executive Director Dianne Nelson tells a similar story. Nelson and her husband have run the sanctuary since 1977, the year after they witnessed some 60 wild horses killed and unceremoniously dragged into the woods after a federal roundup. The Nelsons have struggled over the years keeping their nonprofit group going with donations from horse lovers and by offering yearly camp-outs where people can see the animals in something resembling their natural habitat. But even now that they have access to some 5,000 acres, Nelson said their current number of horses, 200, is all the land can carry.

“They’re talking about thousands of horses—where do think they’re going to go?” she asked. “We can only graze four or five months out of the year as it is. So we’re feeding hay the rest of the time and it’s quite spendy and not really all that good for the horses either.”

Nelson, a serene but quietly passionate woman, recently showed off part of her sanctuary from the cab of an oversized four-wheel-drive pickup. Plodding over rutted, red-dirt trails with 1940s cowboy music crooning softly from the truck’s stereo, Nelson stopped every few minutes to point out various horses, talking about each one’s personality as if they were neighbors she didn’t mind gossiping about. Even on the near edges of Nelson’s sanctuary there are few signs of civilization. If it weren’t for the brusque idling of the diesel engine and the mounds of hay scattered around, it would have been impossible to tell from the scene whether it was 2005 or 1805.

Nelson is a devout Christian who said she doesn’t like to waste her time getting involved in “the politics of man,” as she believes that only the coming of “The Kingdom of God” can solve society’s problems. But with many of her beloved horses facing certain death, Nelson is willing to make an exception.

“As for why should we put resources toward [saving wild horses], it’s because the people have spoken,” she said. “They spoke in 1971 and they spoke again in 1987, when BLM tried to get kill authority and it was shot down by public opinion. Either it’s a democratic country and we listen to what the people want or it’s not. Some people are beginning to wonder: Is it just about money? The livestock people have the stronger lobby, and if you look at the people that are passing the laws, it’s all people with those kind of backgrounds.”

Excellent… Montana Sen. Conrad Burns (R), who introduced an amendment to the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act that allows “surplus” wild horses to be sold, says he did so because the horses, which share public grazing land with beef cattle, are in danger of starving to death.

Courtesy Of Office of Senator Conrad Burns

The wild horse issue is one that somehow manages to cross almost all the cultural and political boundaries that usually divide the American electorate. The plight of the mustang first came to public attention back in the late 1950s, when a dedicated group of activists began exposing the actions of so-called “mustangers,” people who would track and hunt wild horses so they could be sold to glue factories and pet food manufacturers. The brutality employed by these scurrilous characters shocked the public into action and gave rise to one of the most successful grassroots lobbying efforts in American history. Led by the tenacious Velma Johnston, a.k.a. Wild Horse Annie, a coalition formed that resulted in the passing of a 1971 federal law called the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act.

The law banned the sale of wild horses and mandates the BLM to maintain healthy and wild herds of horses and burros on some 270 million acres of public land. Since wild horses are famously strong and adaptable, and since there are basically no large-game predators left in America to thin their numbers, managing the herds quickly became a question of keeping them from overpopulating and thus running out of food on the ranges to which they are confined.

To that end, the BLM conducts yearly roundups at selected Herd Management Areas (HMAs) and adopts horses out to people who want them. To make sure the people adopting horses don’t turn around and immediately sell them, adoptees are screened and don’t take title to their animals until one year after adoption.

At the BLM’s short-term horse and burro storage facility just outside of Susanville, Calif., recently rounded-up horses are processed for adoption by a team of seasoned ranch hands. When I visited the facility, a line of formerly wild horses was being led through a rodeo chute so they could be inoculated, freeze-branded and photographed in preparation for one of the several adoptions the BLM hosts every year.

While the program has been successful, matching 6,000 to 7,000 horses and burros each year with folks who pledge to take good care of them, it is also quite expensive. According to the BLM, caring for rounded-up horses eats up more than half of the $39 million slated for its wild horse program. Horses that can’t be adopted are currently sent to long-term storage facilities in the Midwest, where they are pastured for life at an annual expense of $465 per animal. The Burns amendment authorizes the sale of many of the horses in long-term storage, with proceeds going back into the larger program.

There are currently some 37,000 horses on BLM land, which according to the bureau is 9,000 more than the land can bear. Out of the 14,000 held in long-term storage, 8,400 are now eligible for sale, and with roundups continuing, that number could grow next year.

The bureau’s task is complicated by the fact that many of the 200-some-odd HMAs the BLM operates are also grazing lands for 6 million soon-to-be-sold-and-eaten cattle. That puts the bureau into a tough position, managing rangelands for a multitude of interests that are often at odds with each other.

While the BLM likes to downplay the conflict, there is no doubt that many cattle ranchers see wild horses as little more than unproductive grass-eaters that limit the number of cattle that can feed on public lands. Beef is a $70 billion industry. Horses are chump change in comparison, which explains why there are so many more cows than horses grazing the lone prairie. It may also explain why Burns introduced his amendment, buried as it was in an appropriations bill that passed without most legislators even knowing what they were voting for.

Branded, A BLM cowboy freeze-marks a horse slated for adoption. While the BLM will ask every potential wild horse buyer to sign a statement saying they will take good care of their horses, there is no budget or plan for enforcing the contracts and they do not rule out reselling the animals.

Photo By Tom Angel

Burns’ office denies that the senator was influenced by the cattle lobby, which has been a strong supporter of his, donating more than $93,000 to his campaign fund in the last election cycle. James Pendleton, a spokesman for the senator who goes by the folksy moniker “J.P.,” also denies that the amendment was added surreptitiously.

“The argument they’ve been saying, that this was done as a backroom deal in the dark of night at the 11th hour and all sorts of metaphors—it’s a bunch of hooey,” he said. “This was in the Interior appropriations spending bill, which controls the spending for the BLM, so it was completely legitimate for it to be in this section of the bill. It was definitely germane, and beyond that, this was vetted with other senators. They knew about this, they discussed this. Senator Burns worked closely with Sen. [Harry] Reid of Nevada on this. The idea that this was a one-man operation done in the dead of night is ludicrous.”

When asked why Burns decided it was necessary to strip federal protection from wild horses, Pendleton launched into a display of the rhetorical tactics that have become a hallmark of modern politics.

“What we’re seeing here are animals that have outgrown their range,” Pendleton said. “What this boils down to is a management issue—a resource management issue. They’re starving to death out on the plains, which is horrible—it’s a horrible way for an animal to go and it’s definitely not in the spirit of the Wild Horse and Burro Act.”

Pendleton was never able to cite any evidence that wild horses were actually starving under the BLM’s care. No one at the BLM apparently agrees this was the case, and the horse rescue people interviewed for this story said that on most ranges the horses are healthy, except for when there is a drought or fire. (One also might wonder why it would be better for a wild animal to be sold for slaughter as opposed to dying naturally in the wilderness, but Pendleton didn’t get into that.)

When asked if the senator was concerned about the prospect of thousands of wild horses being slaughtered as a result of his amendment, Pendleton said there was no chance of that happening.

“Yes, a lot of people are saying that, and Sen. Burns doesn’t agree,” he said. “He thinks that a large portion of the animals that would be sold would be purchased by, well, for lack of a better term, good, old-fashioned horse buyers who don’t want to go through the lengthy adoption process. They just want to lay cash on the barrelhead and buy the animal. A lot less hoops to jump through—good, old-fashioned horse traders.”

But who are these good, old-fashioned horse traders, and why would they all of a sudden want feral horses instead of tame ones? Horses aren’t like pound puppies—it takes a lot of land and a lot of money to keep a horse. Besides that, wild horses take much longer to train than their domestic cousins and have been known to form such a strong bond with their primary caretaker that they often don’t respond well to being resold. Still, Pendleton said there are plenty of people who will be willing to take in a wild horse.

Don’t hurt me, Wilbur A BLM worker inoculates a wild horse. The bureau spends almost $40 million a year to manage wild horses, which is basically an exercise in population control. Some horse bands are so prolific they can double in population every five years.

Photo By Tom Angel

“All these people who are complaining about this auction of surplus animals… if every one of those people would go adopt one, we wouldn’t have a problem,” Pendleton said. “Put your money where your mouth is.”

Placed in that perspective, the Burns Amendment starts to look like just another privatization scheme—a way to shift the burden of doing work the public has deemed valuable away from government and onto the backs of private citizens.

Then again, maybe Burns is right. Maybe the invisible hand of the free market will find good homes for thousands of un-adoptable mustangs. But if he is so confident this will happen, and if he cares so much about horses, why has he refused to take a position on federal legislation that would permanently end horse slaughter in the United States?

When asked if the senator was supporting the American Horse Slaughter Protection Act (which was first introduced four years ago and has been stalled in an ag committee until a few months ago), Pendleton demurred, saying Burns was “willing to look at all options.”

(An edited transcript of Pendleton’s interview is available at www.newsreview.com.)

Chris Heyde, a policy analyst for the D.C.-based Society for Animal Protection Legislation has been pushing Congress to adopt the anti-horse-slaughter bill since late 2001. (His group is also lobbying for a bill that would reverse the Burns Amendment, which horse advocates say needs to happen before October, the end of BLM’s current fiscal year.) Heyde said that while he feels the bill has a good chance of passing this year, he has run into plenty of opposition, especially from legislators representing ag- and livestock-heavy districts.

“Their mentality is to oppose and fight anything that would be considered even basic animal protection,” he said. “They’ve been trying to undermine even basic protections. It’s amazing because the most support we’ve gotten for the slaughter bill, outside of the humane community, has been from the industry—the thoroughbred industry.”

The anti-slaughter bill has even come under fire from the neo-conservative Heritage Foundation, which last year published a snarky commentary on the subject warning Americans that a law banning horse slaughter might “bring the FBI a-knocking at your door” if one were to so much as think about eating a horse. The foundation also calls the bill an example of “cultural imperialism,” stating that “Certain pious horse lovers will not be satisfied until the federal government criminalizes all those who don’t share their values.”

Horse sense, Dianne Nelson walks the grounds of the Wild Horse Sanctuary in Shingletown followed by a couple of curious mustangs. Nelson hopes the Burns Amendment will be repealed.

Photo By Tom Angel

Anyone familiar with the Heritage Foundation, which has long supported an extremely aggressive, America-first foreign policy, ought to get a chuckle out of its sudden concern over American cultural imperialism. But the argument is one Heyde has heard before when presenting his bill to legislators.

“Sometimes I get [legislators] saying, ‘Well, who are we to impose our values on others?’ I just turn around say, ‘Don’t tell that to the 300,000 American troops sitting in Iraq right now.’ “

Seriously though, what do values have to do with politics? Is there a value in paying millions every year to keep wild horses from disappearing from the American landscape? How does one quantify a symbolic benefit, one that makes no one richer and that most people have no idea even exists? And if something is unquantifiable, what place does it have in a system that sees value only in economic terms?

The advocates for wild horses say it has to do with a debt we owe to the animals themselves. They also note that there are a lot of alternatives to managing wild horse herds that have yet to be fully implemented. One is the idea of using long-term contraceptives to keep their numbers in check. The Wild Horse Sanctuary’s Nelson notes that there are currently contraceptives, one of them, PZP, that keep mares from becoming pregnant for up to four years. PZP has already been used to successfully pare down a band of wild horses in Shackleford Banks, N.C.

(The BLM is currently experimenting with the drug but has yet to gain approval for its widespread use.)

There are other solutions, too. If the real reason for scrapping the horse and burro act is that it costs too much money, Nelson asks, then why not allow horse lovers to pay grazing fees, in effect sponsoring the horses’ presence on public land?

“I know a lot of us would speak up and chip in for that,” she said. “That would be a finite number we could go out to our supporters and say, ‘You could sponsor [a horse] just like you can sponsor whales in the ocean.’ Shoot, if you could sponsor a wild horse on public lands for the grazing fee, it would be less than 10 bucks a year, maybe 20. Lots of people would come forward for that.”

Ultimately though, the task for people like Nelson will be to convince people, like Wild Horse Annie did back in the 1960s, that wild horses are somehow important enough to protect. Most of the horse lovers I talked to said they were optimistic that Americans would once again come to the rescue of the mustang. But this isn’t the 1960s, and some of us aren’t even sure if it’s America anymore.

“If the public has spoken and they’ve said they want them out there, and they’re willing to slice out that little piece of the public budget to go there, then why can’t it be so?" Nelson said, when asked why anyone should care about an issue that has been central to her life for three decades. "It’s a small enough token to an animal that contributed so much to our history."