Running to Freedom

Running free
Running free in Sandwash Basin, CO © Laurie Ford

Article & photos by Laurie Ford —

“What’s next?” President Trump asks, referring to the destruction of historical monuments, and the history of our country being “ripped apart”, during a speech to the Heritage Foundation last October.

What’s next? Further attacks on symbols of our American history – only these are living, beautiful, breathing ones, and the onslaught is by his own administration. If certain provisions in the FY 2018 budget are passed, tens of thousands of wild horses and burros will not only be ripped apart from their homes and families, but will die.

Mitochondrial DNA science indicates that the horse originated in North America, died out, and was re-introduced by the Spanish in the 15th century. Beginning with these Spanish horses that escaped from explorers and settlers, the mustang became an integral part of the American landscape. Over time, they were joined by other breeds of escapees – each one representing a segment of American history. From the paints and appaloosas of the Native American tribes to the draft stock of eastern settlers, these horses played a vital role in the culture and development of the West as they carried men, and women, through the historical events that shaped our country.  Hundreds of thousands fought, and died, in countless wars to protect the essence of freedom, and even today they continue to be recruited to do the same. Although the Spanish blood has become diluted, the spirit and perseverance of the mustang – a breed we equate with freedom – has not.

But, by the end of the 19th century the words of the Spanish explorer, Herman Cortez, “next to God we owe our victory to the horses” were forgotten, and America waged its own war on the very animals that had brought us success. Much like what is occurring today, their presence was interfering with a booming cattle industry and further development, and the solution was to eradicate them from the very land they had helped fight for. The cruelty these animals have suffered at the hands of man has not stopped since then – it is only the methods that have changed.

In 1971 our wild horses and burros were given a temporary reprieve with the passing of the Wild Horse and Burro Act by Congress which agreed they were “living symbols of the history and spirit of the west” and should be protected from “capture, branding, harassment and death” – protected from the very things that our government is practicing today and embracing for the future.

When the Act was passed, the majority of horses and burros were to be managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as the primary use on the 53 million acres of land they roamed. Today, not only has a third of that acreage been eliminated, but they must share their remaining designated habitat with livestock, energy projects, and other forms of public use. In addition, the U.S. Forest Service is responsible for the horses and burros found on national forest land (2.5 million acres), and the small herds that roam federal park lands – such as Theodore Roosevelt and Assateague Island – are managed by the National Park Service.

holding facility
Holding facility in Delta, Utah © Laurie Ford

The BLM was given the task to decide how many wild horses and burros the land, along with its mandated uses, could sustain – a number referred to as the Appropriate Management Level – or AML. Rather than take a scientific approach, the BLM focused on inaccurate and inconsistent population surveys, and the availability of forage and its allocation – the majority going to livestock.  The current national AML is set at 26,715 wild horses and burros – a single animal for every 9,171 acres –  and continues to be a central point of controversy.

To satisfy the AML, the BLM has been conducting round-ups for decades, removing the excess horses and burros from their land and placing them in short-term holding facilities. From there, they are either adopted or sold with limitations –  the remaining animals are then sent to long term facilities.

  • As of March, 2017, there were almost 46,000 horses and burros in holding facilities.
  • Only 624 have been placed in eco sanctuaries that raise public awareness and provide ecotourism opportunities.
  • An estimated 73,000 – in addition to 10-13,000 2017 foals – still roam free – almost 60,000 over the BLM’s projected AML.

The FY 2018 budget request to Congress proposes shaving $10 million from the Wild Horse and Burro Program by removing some existing restrictions on the sale, and the disposition of excess animals – that includes the 60,000 mentioned above. In short, to deal with the imploding program, the answer is to kill the horses and burros, or sell them, without limitation, to those who will.

meal time
Meal time (Sandwash Basin, CO) © Laurie Ford

Within the budget lurks the Appropriations Bills – for the Dept. of Interior and Dept. of Agriculture – that will ultimately determine the fate of these animals. In September the House of Representatives passed a combined appropriations bill that would permit, in accordance with the proposed budget, the BLM to “dispose” of the excess, unadoptable horses and burros as they see fit. The bill did not prohibit the funding of horse meat inspections by the USDA – opening the door to horse slaughter resuming in the US. The Senate, on the other hand, has barred the BLM from killing the animals, and the USDA from funding the inspections. Now the two versions of bills will be merged, and the real battle ensues as to what stays, and what goes.

The Senate also requested the BLM, which is funded by the Dept. of the Interior, to come up with humane and politically viable solutions to manage the wild horses and burros. It is unlikely that this would include the recent recommendations from the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board to permanently phase out the long term holding facilities, and the animals within them, or to consider a proposal from Russia to purchase large amounts of horses for their big-cat re-wilding project.

Where will the BLM find these solutions? “Look at the science,” affirms Karen Herman, co-founder of Sky Mountain Wild Horse Sanctuary here in New Mexico. The sanctuary, along with partners Mt. Taylor Mustangs and the Carson National Forest, implemented and funded the first use of the fertility control vaccine Porcine Zona Pellucida, or PZP, on the forest’s wild horses.

Although it was the BLM, in the 1970s, that sparked the initial research to control population through fertility control, they have been slow to embrace the supporting scientific results. In many instances it has been wild horse advocates – in cooperation with government agencies – who have pioneered ahead with administering PZP and, in less than a decade, have been able to stabilize the population of targeted herds. A 2013 economic model published in the Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine determined that the BLM could reach its management goals within 12 years using fertility control – saving taxpayers millions by eliminating costly round-ups – estimated at $1000 per horse –  and long-term care –  up to $50,000 per animal over its lifetime.  The vaccine – at $24 a dose – is administered every 1-3 years with a single booster following the initial dose.  The well-known Assateague wild horses – managed by the National Park Service – have been receiving fertility control for over 30 years and today are a thriving, healthy, sustainable herd.

Horse ballet
Horse Ballet (Onaque Mountains, UT) © Laurie Ford

These partnerships between wild horse and burro advocates and the BLM and USFS, are crucial to the survival of our country’s wild horses and burros. The majority of these groups are dedicated volunteers, who share in a mission to protect the horses and burros and their surrounding habitat. Not only do these volunteers assist with on- and off- range programs, but in doing so, reduce costs and personnel time of their partner agencies.  Providing sanctuaries, training, and placement for those animals removed from the range, raising public awareness, and devoting countless hours of their time are only a few additional examples of how organizations, such as Sky Mountain, have helped, and will continue to help, protect our wild horses and burros.

Managing our wild horse and burro herds through euthanization, or reopening horse slaughter, is not a humane, science-based solution. Neither is the practice of gather and removal which, in a 2013 study by the National Academy of Science, found “likely to keep the population at a size that maximizes population growth rates, which in turn maximizes the number of animals that must be removed to holding facilities.” Despite the Academy’s recommendation to increase the use of fertility control to manage herd populations, it has never been allocated more than 4% of the Wild Horses and Burro Program’s budget, and the upcoming budget would practically zero out even this miniscule funding.

From Bob Seger’s song Against the Wind, the phrase “living to run and running to live” is a perfect assessment of the situation our wild horses and burros are currently facing. The question is, can they outrun the antiquated methods of controlling their population, and the special interest groups intent on destroying them? We need to find a way to better manage our wild horses and burros – not by killing them.

What is next?  You can contact your representatives in Congress, and the involved government agencies, to voice your concerns. And, you can stay informed by visiting: