More than half of the countless horses that Spanish colonists brought to the Americas died on the way, thrown overboard to lighten the loads when the galleons sailed into calm seas along the equator. This part of the Atlantic is still known as the “horse latitudes.” Descendants of the horses that survived the treacherous crossings make up the herds of wild horses roaming the West today. And while nominally protected by federal law, they are still being sent to their deaths. This time it's at the hands of the US government.
Last month, a public outcry and a philanthropist's plan to relocate the horses earned thousands of mustangs a temporary reprieve from a federal “euthanasia” plan. But whether the wild horse can be saved is still in doubt; as I write, we are down to our last 23,000 horses on public lands in the western states. This is a number that experts say may not be sustainable.
Management of most wild horse populations in the US is assigned by the Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971 to the Bureau of Land Management, part of the Department of the Interior. When it comes to stewardship of wild horses, the feds have an abysmal record. Possibly as many as 30,000 wild horses were sold to slaughterhouses during the 1980's in a kind of deadly equine insider-trading. A grand jury investigation was held, but the whole thing was dropped; allegations that witnesses were scared off by profiteers still linger.
Today the situation isn't much better. Corporate ranching outfits still view the horses as pests that steal food from beef cattle (although with so few horses and more than 3,000,000 head of cattle on public lands in the West it seems the threat would be the other way around). Yet the beef industry's powerful lobby — along with those who want the land for gas, oil, and big game — has convinced the BLM to conduct more round-ups than are necessary to control the horse population. It's just one more example of federal environmental policy being overseen by people who really don't want one. The law does permit the BLM to conduct annual round-ups in designated "Herd Management Areas" — provided that proper population and range impact studies are regularly conducted in every area. But because of budget cutbacks the process is not always up to date, and thanks to the livestock industry the studies are often essentially fixed in its favor. Two years ago, a pair of BLM scientists resigned in protest after superiors pressured them into altering the findings of a grazing study to favor the viability of cattle and other profitable grazers on the land the animals share with mustangs. Moreover, increased gas and oil drilling on public lands has put wild horses — indeed the entire range habitat — at greater risk. And a sell-off of public lands in recent years has received scant attention but dangerously reduced wildlife habitat.
About 30,000 horses that have been rounded up are now wards of the federal government, awaiting adoption through a program set up by the BLM. With too few homes for all of these horses, the Government Accounting Office recently gave the BLM the go-ahead to kill the “excess” animals in custody, stating that keeping them was too much of a strain on the federal budget. Yet many of these animals should not have been taken from the land in the first place: In addition to the periodic cullings, the BLM often stages emergency "gathers," removing horses from their habitat during times of drought, citing lack of water for mustangs. This is clearly disingenuous because the horses are never returned to their home after being given a drink, nor is any other species routinely removed for the same reason.
Last month, with Thanksgiving just days away, the BLM was about to begin its execution plan to “save taxpayers money.” Suddenly besieged with over 40,000 messages of protest, the agency reconsidered. (In 1971, when Congress was debating whether to pass the law protecting wild horses, it received the second highest number of letters in its entire history up to that date; the most were about the war in Vietnam). Then Madeline Pickens, wife of Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens, intervened, announcing a plan to rescue the condemned horses and move them to a vast area on public lands in the West which she is currently trying to acquire. With the bell tolling for mustangs, the BLM announced it would table the mass execution for a year to give Pickens time to put her land deal together.
Unbeknownst to many, the horse is indigenous to this country; in fact it's North America’s gift to the world. During the Ice Age, horses went extinct on this continent — but not before heading across the Bering land bridge and populating the rest of the world. They were reintroduced by the conquistadors and have flourished on the American range for centuries. They were pressed into service to blaze our trails, fight our wars, and carry the nation westward. “We owe it all to God and the horse,” Hernando Cortes said after the Spanish had conquered the Aztecs. And so too, the United States — born in the hoofsparks of Paul Revere’s ride — would not exist without our devoted four-legged partner, the animal Native Americans called the wind-drinker. At the close of the 19th Century, there were 2,000,000 mustangs in the wild. Many of them were again sent off to war, culled for chicken feed and pet food, moved off by cattle and sheepmen, or simply shot for sport or by bounty hunters, who brought their ears to ranchers in exchange for a fee. By the middle of the 20th Century, wild horses were on their way out, reduced to fewer than 70,000.
When the wild horse finally gained federal protection, there were 50,000 on public lands in the 11 western states. Since the mid-1970's, the BLM round-ups have escalated, and George W. Bush — from the great state of Texas, where the wild horse once roamed by the millions — has overseen the rollback of the law protecting wild horses and nearly presided over the eradication of one of America's greatest icons from the animal kingdom. A 2005 appropriations bill that Bush signed included a rider attached by Montana's then-Senator, Conrad Burns, authorizing the BLM to sell wild horses more than ten years old (which isn't old for a horse) or that hadn't been adopted by the third try to the lowest bidder. This was code language for a trip to the slaughterhouse. With the now infamous Burns rider in place, the long-time goal of the livestock industry--reducing the wild horse to its per pound value - had finally been reached. For the first time since enactment of the landmark 1971 law, a number of mustangs were legally shipped to their deaths by the government that was mandated to protect them. Had it not been for a massive grassroots campaign which soon shut down the country's three horse-rendering plants (all foreign-owned) wild horses would have been trucked off by the thousands. (As it now stands, they - and domestic horses - can still be taken across the border to Canada or Mexico for slaughter, thanks to a hold that Republicans have placed on a bill that would stop that practice).
Contrary to statements made by government authorities, taxpayers don’t have a problem with wild horse preservation. In fact, it’s one of the few things many Americans agree on, as I’ve learned at my book talks around the country. “Wild horses merit man's protection," Richard Nixon said when he signed the 1971 act, ''for they are a living link with the days of the conquistadors, through the heroic times of the western Indians and pioneers, to our own day when the tonic of wilderness seems all too scarce. More than that, they merit it as a matter of ecological right — as anyone knows who has ever stood awed at the indomitable spirit and sheer energy of a mustang running free."
With the kill plan on hold, the wild horses in government custody will survive another year, and perhaps even find a new home on the range. The situation is living proof that when citizens step up — dare I say it? — our history is honored and good things can happen. While other battles remain (such as a moratorium on all round-ups until the BLM brings its studies up to date and government corrals are not overflowing again), the horse America rode in on endures--although for how much longer we cannot say.
You can help wild mustangs at www.wildhorsepreservation.com, through the International Society for the Protection of Wild Horses and Burros, and at www.returntofreedom.org. If you're short on cash you can work for the horses on a "volunteer vacation." Read about it here.
This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in December 2008.