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Endangered Treasures Legislation Moving Through Washington to Slaughter America’s Wild Horses and Burros

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For nearly 50 years, Congress has protected our iconic wild horses and burros, symbols of beauty and freedom in the American West. But now our federal government threatens their very existence as President Trump’s 2018 budget proposes killing nearly 100,000 healthy wild horses and burros so the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) can save money.

The threat is urgent: July votes in Congress and the Senate set up a September showdown. The legislative chess match is being played to protect two key kings: governmental protections for our wild herds and the current closure of U.S. slaughterhouses to horses. The House Appropriations Committee passed a spending bill that could reopen U.S. slaughter plants, but the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to keep them defunded. By a narrow margin, the same House committee passed the Interior Department’s proposed 2018 expenditures removing the protections. The Senate will take this up in September. Differences will be worked out on both aspects in conference committees before full House and Senate voting takes place.

Meanwhile those backing eradication of the wild horses and burros have convened a conference in Salt Lake City this week and the BLM is planning to round up and remove almost 10,000 more wild horses from their homes on the range in Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Oregon and Colorado in the coming months, stacking the deck in favor of the BLM’s and Congress’s push for slaughter.

But, wait, you ask, isn’t the charge of the BLM to manage our public lands and the wild horses and burros that live on them? And what money is being expended that could be saved?

False Claims, Failed Program

For years the BLM has spent $80 million annually in taxpayer dollars to run its Wild Horse and Burro Program, where thousands of horses have been removed from public lands and forced into holding pens throughout the West. The round ups are cruel. Helicopters are used to drive horses – sensitive flight animals – across hundreds of miles of rugged terrain, creating fear, causing injuries and deaths, and for those that survive, breaking bonds and dividing families. Stallions and mares are sorted. Stallions are gelded. Foals are pulled from their mares. All are intended for adoption, but more than 40,000 horses and burros remain in holding in a miserably failed program: more horses are rounded up each year than could possibly be placed into private homes or sanctuaries. Only a small number of Americans today have the means and the land to afford the care of a horse. Even less possess the experience or wherewithal to train a wild horse for domestic use, and many wild horses simply cannot be trained. Burros have even fewer options.

But why remove them to begin with? The BLM argues that wild horses are destroying Western grazing lands, though it allows millions of head of private livestock to graze those same public lands that, again, are subsidized by American taxpayers. Of the total public lands that the BLM manages, private livestock graze on eight times the acreage that wild horses and burros graze and consume 55 times the amount of food, but wild horses and burros are still seen as the problem. The net result has been the waste of thousands of lives – those lost on the range and those still alive in holding pens – and millions of taxpayer dollars.

Killing to Clean Up the Mess

The Interior Department’s resolution to the mess the BLM has made: a line item reduction of this expenditure. This “line item” represents healthy, living and breathing wild horses and burros in BLM holding facilities and on the range. They claim “reduction” could be by euthanasia, but the sheer numbers, and an amendment to uphold the ban on horsemeat inspections in U.S. slaughterhouses that was voted down by the House Appropriations Committee last month, indicate their intent to slaughter. And removals of protections on the range would also clear the way for those same helicopters, instead of rounding up the wild herds, to gun them down.

All parties on all sides of the issue – including our leading animal welfare agencies and wild horse advocates – agree that the current Wild Horse and Burro program is unsustainable and must radically change. Ironically, the National Academy of Sciences, in a 2013 study funded by the BLM, stated that removal of the herds has, as nature is wont, incited higher reproduction rates among those left behind and maximized the number of horses and burros therefore funneled into holding pens. The Academy also states that our wild herds can be humanely and responsibly managed on the range with fertility control. The BLM, and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, claim this is not feasible. But recently, the American Wild Horse Campaign allocated $50,000 and sent a team of six volunteers to the Virginia Range in Nevada to conduct a birth control program for 3000 horses on 300,000 acres. Already they’ve vaccinated more mares with birth control than the BLM did all of last year.

Betrayal of an Ancient Partnership

What is most disturbing is that, except for the dedicated action of wild horse advocates and a handful of photographers and filmmakers who have courageously tried to generate public awareness over the years, the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program has been conducted out of sight of the 80 percent of Americans who oppose horse slaughter of any kind and favor protection of our wild horses and burros.

And when we discover what is happening, we are stunned, repulsed. For many, it’s too intense to take in. Why? It is certainly a betrayal of our trust of our national leadership and federal government, charged with managing and protecting our lands and wild animals, not eliminating them. But I think this betrayal runs even deeper. Since ancient times, horses have partnered with man to build civilization – to fight our wars, pull our plows, transport us. There was a time when every American had a relationship with a horse. Then with the advent of the automobile, they competed with us in performance arenas, carried us on natural adventures, and companioned our children and families. And now horses are partnering with us in brand new ways: facilitating human healing and development of the social, emotional and body intelligences that they innately master, and the bonds they form – and leaders they choose – based on instinct, trust and respect. Capacities and qualities we desperately need more of in our society today. For most of us, to slaughter horses is simply unconscionable.

Victims of a Larger Force

The forces moving our wild horses and burros toward genocide are greater than their lives alone. They are canaries in an insidious coal mine dug by the attitudes and actions of a fractured culture that deem others can be owned and their lives ended at the voice of one vote, eliminated by a line item in a budget. Where the interests of a few perceived to be at the center of power control the fates of millions – acres of public land, beings of all species and those of us who value them. These themes echo in the Trump-led withdrawal from The Paris Agreement: actions taken at the behest of a few ignoring the broad support for our global cooperation in caring for our planet expressed by individuals, cities, states and major national and international corporations and organizations. As Al Gore says in his new film An Inconvenient Sequel, ours is a “hijacked Democracy.”

Let’s ALL work together – animal welfare organizations, the many working on behalf of our wild herds, cattle and oil and gas representatives, and the BLM to chart a new way forward.

Let’s release our wild horses and burros from holding facilities to the millions of acres of public lands in the West where they rightfully belong, where they can live out their natural lives intelligently managed through science, where natural predators are restored (and not also slaughtered to protect cattle), and where visitors can view all returned to balance.

These national treasures – horses, burros, and lands – belong to all of us. Let’s let this intense passage yield a new beginning of collaboration, not a governmental massacre.

Act Now

Here are easy, but vital, steps you can take:

  1. Please voice your vote to your Congressman and Senators TODAY and share this information widely. It’s easy (confession: I had never done this until now): just call the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121. You don’t need know who your representative is – the operator will ask you a few questions and then connect you to yours. Or you can visit https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members
  2. Visit them in your hometown while they are on recess
  3. Follow the American Wild Horse Campaign and their action alerts at www.americanwildhorsecampaign.org

For our wild horses and burros, and for all that is sacred on our planet.

Kimberly Carlisle