Washington, D.C.— The House Appropriations Committee voted last week to allow the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to begin euthanizing wild horses, whose large, mostly unchecked population has reportedly created problems for both government and private businesses. Though advocates of the approved amendment claim this euthanasia is the most humane solution, horse and animal advocates object and blame the BLM and government directly.
This is not a new issue. Last year the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board suggested reversing the government’s ban on euthanasia to deal with the population problem, but the recommendation was quickly shelved amid outcry from the public. So was an effort to sterilize mares.
However, as Buzzfeed News reported, Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah introduced an amendment this month to reverse the longstanding policy against killing wild horses. Stewart has argued the many of the wild horses in the country “are starving, they’re destroying the range, and they’re crowding out the deer and elk because we cannot manage them.”
He argued that opposing euthanasia implicitly means supporting a slow, captive starvation for tens of thousands of wild horses, 46,000 of which the BLM is currently tasked with taking care of. USA Today noted the amendment aims to address the population 67,000 wild horses.
The outlet reported that the committee “voted to remove language from the Interior Department’s budget that would have prohibited ‘the destruction of healthy, unadopted wild horses and burros in the care of’ the Bureau of Land Management or its contractors. It passed by voice vote.”
“The vote came after the Trump administration proposed allowing euthanasia or selling horses for slaughter” Buzzfeed News noted, adding that the amendment would keep slaughtering wild horses for meat or commercial products illegal.
Stewart has the support of ranchers in the region, who have complained that the wild horses excessively graze the lands, creating inconveniences and extra costs when it comes to feeding their cattle.
“It’s probably costing $100,000 a year to have to do that,” Mark Wintch, a rancher in Milford, Utah, said. “That’s been a longtime burden that we have expressed to the BLM for over 30 years.” Wintch sued the BLM in 2014 in an attempt to force them to remove the horses, who themselves are struggling to survive amid a lack of food and water.
“Removing limits undermines conservation efforts, however, according to advocates. More sales will lead to more horses captured, gathered, and sold off, freeing terrain for foraging livestock. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and state rancher groups have been explicit about seeking support for their goals and pushed for a shift in BLM’s position.
“‘This is simply a way to placate a very well-funded and vocal livestock lobby,’ Laura Leigh, president of the nonprofit protection group Wild Horse Education, told Courthouse News.”
Further, in 2014, the New York Times reported that horse advocates claim the official story is not as it seems (though they agreed that the BLM’s practice of storing horses is unsustainable):
“Horse advocacy groups say that the population problem is overblown, and that the agency has unfairly relegated horses to scraps of marginal land where they are vastly outnumbered by cattle, then blamed the horses for the damage done by all grazers. Many are pushing for expanded horse territories and better management on the range.”
Regardless, the BLM does currently attempt to round up thousands of horses to feed and care for them, but the agency claims it could cost $1 billion to care for the 46,000 horses currently under their care. This has led some to support euthanizing them, but others claim doing so is a poor solution to a problem the BLM has failed to solve for years.
Buzzfeed News notes that some horse advocates favor simply leaving the horses alone, though that doesn’t solve the reported problem of overpopulation and depletion of the environment. One solution is to have private ranchers adopt the horses, though the number willing to do so has dropped in recent years. Some 3,000 horses were adopted last year.
Others advocate the use of a birth control called PZP for mares, and the American Wild Horse Campaign points to a survey conducted earlier this month by Public Policy Polling showing the vast majority of Americans supports this method of dealing with the problem.
However, Jason Lutterman, a spokesman for BLM, claims this is ultimately an ineffective solution because it only lasts for a year and that it is not feasible to routinely round up thousands of horses to administer the vaccine contraceptive (however, it seems no more inefficient than maintaining them in captivity year-round).
“That means gathering and treating 29,000 to 30,000 animals every year. What we really need is a longer lasting fertility control vaccine,” he told Buzzfeed News.
Despite Lutterman’s contentions, other experts blame the BLM outright. “Several wild horse advocates told BuzzFeed News that the problems with birth control and adoptions have to do with the way they have been administered, not with the concepts themselves,” the outlet reported.
“Willis Lamm, a spokesperson for the Alliance of Wild Horse Advocates, said ‘the BLM has really screwed up,’ and blamed Congress for funding issues.”
Gillian Lyons, who works for the Humane Society as a wildlife fertility specialist, expressed support for the birth control method despite the BLM’s objections. She also criticized the agency’s tactics in general.
“We have told the BLM for 15 years that they cannot keep removing horses from the range and putting them in holding facilities,” she said. “Now as a result of their own failure to pick up on what everyone was telling them, they want to euthanize the horses.”
Sheila Schwadel of the Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates also accused the agency of incompetence. “”[I]t is not about lack of options, it’s about long standing federal mismanagement,” she said. Even Alma Adams, a commissioner in Utah’s rural Iron County who has emphasized the severity of the wild horse problem, acknowledged that “This is the only species the BLM manages and they just don’t know how to do it.”
Lutterman’s comments appear to confirm this. As he told Buzzfeed News, “We just don’t have a good solution right now. We’re sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place.” Though it is certainly a difficult problem to solve and it seems impossible to please everyone — from the public to cattle ranchers to horse advocates — the BLM does not appear to be offering viable solutions.
The American Wild Horse Campaign’s executive director, Suzanne Roy, was harsh in her condemnation, accusing the House committee of advocating outright slaughter.
“Let’s be clear: House Appropriations Committee members just signed a death warrant for America’s mustangs and it will lead to the wholesale destruction of these irreplaceable national treasures. The Stewart amendment is a slaughter amendment, and its proponents are trying to hide that fact from the American people.“
The amendment will be subject to a House vote before it moves on to the Senate, where it will be deliberated after the August recess.