Feral horses are out of control in the American West, laying waste to vast tracts of wildlife habitat and imperiling native species. What's worse, the public seems determined to keep it that way.
When I asked the Conquistador Equine Rescue and Advocacy Program's president, Pat Haight, how she knows the escaped horses have Spanish blood, she said: "Because [U.S. Cavalry] General Crook's trail follows [conquistador] Coronado's trail, and some of the old timers up there have talked to their grandfathers about it. I'm not going to get into a debate over it with you. I have Spanish horses, and I know their colors." Not only are the genetics of these and other feral horses unknown, they are irrelevant. Alien is alien. Asian bittersweet, for example, is wild and free and beautiful, but we don't preserve it on the landscape as an "icon of colonial America" simply because it has infested our continent since 1736.
It's not as if the feral-horse activists weren't winning before 2006. With the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 Congress banned lethal control. In addition, it placed all unrestrained, unclaimed horses and burros under the care of the federal government, primarily the BLM, and gave it the task of managing an alien species so as "to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance." That task is, of course, impossible. No alien species can thrive or even exist in "natural ecological balance." And, in our predator-impoverished land, even native ungulates can't be managed without lethal control.
In 2004, with feral horses proliferating in the wild and in BLM holding facilities, Congress amended the act, stipulating that excess horses "shall be made available for sale without limitation" and directing the agency to euthanize animals more than 10 years old or that had been unsuccessfully offered for adoption at least three times. But intimidated by the feral-horse lobby, the BLM declined to euthanize and all but blocked purchases by making customers sign a "statement of intent" that they wouldn't sell the animals for slaughter. Therefore the "BLM is not in compliance with the act," charges a scathing, 88-page report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2008.
Even if the BLM dared to obey the law, it lacks the money and manpower to control feral horses. In 2007 the agency spent $38.8 million rounding up and holding horses; in 2010 it spent $63.9 million; and for 2011 it has budgeted $75.7 million with an additional $42.5 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to buy more holding facilities. This doesn't include most costs of removing or excluding feral horses from lands managed by states, private entities, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Forest Service. Currently the BLM is maintaining 34,500 feral horses and burros on welfare and supposedly managing 37,800 others in the wild. (Feral horses vastly outnumber feral burros.) No one knows how many animals exist on other lands, public and private.
Increasing the cost is the need for more BLM staffers at gathers to cater to and control observers, most of whom are in their faces about imagined horse abuse. The agency has even taken to providing port-o-potties. The estimated cost for the Adobe Town-Salt Wells gather alone had been $700,000, but the final figure will be well above that. By contrast our federal government, via its endangered species program, spends an average of $86,673 a year on each of 2,071 wild species believed to face imminent or possible extinction.
"It is interesting that we have a law requiring us to manage a non-indigenous species across the American landscape," remarks Dwight Fielder, the BLM's chief of fish, wildlife, and plant conservation. "Not only is this having a huge impact on the landscape, it's having a huge impact on our budget. It's just not a sustainable proposition. And of course some of the horse activists are extremely vocal and highly emotional." Indeed they are.
Although the BLM has repeatedly vowed never to euthanize excess horses, the mere possibility that it could do so was enough to send the feral-horse lobby screaming to Congress. In July 2009 the House obligingly passed the Restore Our American Mustangs (ROAM) Act. The bill, now before the Senate, would set up 19 million additional acres on which feral horses can explode and would revoke the BLM's unused authority to destroy old, sick, or unadoptable horses.
Even if the BLM wanted to sell horses for slaughter, it couldn't. In 2007 the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia ordered the last horse-slaughter plant closed. "Keep America's horses in the stable and off the table" was the battle cry of the political action committee called HOOFPAC. So now, instead of getting something back on their investments, people who own ailing domestic horses or adopted mustangs often must pay to have them put down, then hauled to a landfill because they've been shot full of poison by the euthanizing veterinarian. The result is that more and more horses are being turned loose on public land.