- - Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Imagine the terror of the young woman as she wheeled her horse around, groping for her lasso. She faced the wild stallion and whooped, snapping the rope. He stomped and trotted off. The woman and her young niece were gathering cattle, on their private ranchland. The wild horse shouldn’t have been there. She was breaking the law by “harassing” the horse.

To live in wild horse country is to have stories. The wild horse debate is one of strong divides and even stronger opinions.

This issue, which dominates the Western United States as more than 70,000 excess horses damage the landscape, will be front and center in Washington when the Senate Appropriations Committee debates the Interior appropriations bill. Part of that discussion concerns the control of the wild horse population through “sale without restriction,” including slaughter.

How did we come to have an unsustainable number of wild horses and burros supported by taxpayers to the tune of $80.4 million this year?

Since the 1970s, the government has had rules in place to try to manage the population. The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act of 1971 created Horse Management Areas (HMAs). The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was tasked “to determine the areas where horses and burros were found roaming and to manage them ‘in a manner that is designed to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands.’ ” In 1971, 17,300 feral horses and 8,045 burros roamed the range.



Target horse populations were based on sustainability, and “multiple use” mandates for grazing, wildlife and healthy rangeland. Excess horses were to be gathered and healthy horses adopted.

However, adoptions (2,912 in 2016) hardly impact the growing herds, and horse advocates have convinced Congress to forbid sale for slaughter. Horse herds increase by about 20 percent each year, doubling every 4-5 years, creating the unsustainable “perfect storm” we face today. The senators and representatives in 40 states don’t have wild horses, but they do have constituents who lobby for unfettered horse “rights.”

Horse advocates argue that horses are native, even though modern horses arrived on Spanish ships, along with cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens. They characterize families like mine as greedy “millionaire and billionaire ranchers.” We see ourselves as hardworking food producers and land stewards, who are feeding Americans.

Horse advocates are painted as crazy wing nuts spouting wild rhetoric and death threats. They are usually animal and outdoor lovers who may not realize the collateral damage of their quest to save wild horses.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. North America is irrevocably changed, and we must find a sustainable path.

Wild horses are indeed glorious, and an important part of our nation’s story.

Domestic or wild — horses are, in fact, hard on fragile ecosystems, including the near-endangered sage grouse. Most ungulates — cattle, sheep, goats, elk, deer, antelope — have only lower teeth and a hard upper palate. They are cloven-hoofed, aerating the soil, and have multiple stomachs for efficient digestion. Horses, with their large, heavy hooves, top and bottom teeth and single stomachs are more impactful.

“If we don’t manage the horses, we know we’ll lose the sage brush habitat and all the commensurate species,” says National Audubon Society’s Brian Rutledge. “Horses are a terminal threat to greater sage grouse because they destroy the habitat and the obligate species to that habitat.” Those species cannot survive “a ludicrous number of horses.”

The facts, according to the Public Lands Council’s Ethan Lane, are these: 40 percent of western cattle and 50 percent of sheep live part of their lives on public lands. While grazing fees seem low, public lands ranchers save the government $760 million in land management through practices such as water development and weed control, and add $1.5 billion to the U.S. economy. They manage these livestock, which do not graze year-round.

Some horse advocates do work toward solutions. The Sand Wash Advocate Team north of Craig, Colo., trains people to monitor horses in the Sand Wash Horse Management Area, administer PZP birth control, cooperate with the Bureau of Land Management on projects, and promote adoption of horses.

Dennis Carpenter, BLM district manager for the Rawlins, Wyo., field office, says, “It is hard to manage if the only tools in the toolbox are gathers and PZP.” Horse populations in his district’s HMAs are four times over the objective, with no authorized gathers in sight. PZP is only administered to 1 percent of wild horses, and has limited effect.

Congress should support the sale of wild horses without restriction. The current situation, in which taxpayers support at least 70,000 excess horses, leaves us with no end in sight — not in numbers, not in funding, not in ecological damage. We desperately need a real solution to save the majestic Western landscape.

• Sharon S. O’Toole is a rancher near Savery, Wyoming, and writes about rural, natural resource and conservation issues.

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