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.
This and the sagging economy, which has discouraged people from committing to the major expense of feral-horse adoptions, have obliged the agency to pay for more gathers and build more long-term holding facilities (up from one in 1988 to 11 in 2008 to 17 in 2011). Gathers are almost always done with helicopters, which--according to the horse activists--terrify the animals so that they stampede, killing themselves. Less than one percent die, many from hideous preexisting maladies. But these days there isn't a gather anywhere that isn't protested. "Join a protest or start your own!" instructs the Cloud Foundation's website, which offered a list of nine protests planned for October 2010 alone. At this writing, litigation by feral-horse activists has delayed gathers planned for 2010 in Nevada's Calico horse management complex, Nevada's Tuscarora area, and California's Twin Peaks area.
The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign may not be exaggerating when it reports that the BLM received more than 10,000 letters opposing the Adobe Town-Salt Wells gather. Carol Walker, who lobbies against management of feral horses when she isn't photographing them, hand-delivered 3,516 of those letters to the agency's office in Rock Springs, Wyoming.
I met Ms. Walker at the gather. She repeatedly expressed concern that "there'd be no horses left in Adobe Town." This was hardly the case, as BLM staffers kept assuring her. While most captured horses would be trucked to holding facilities in Canon City, Colorado, and Rock Springs, dozens would be released. None would be surgically sterilized, but the mares would be injected with the anti-fertility drug porcine zona pellucida (PZP), which doesn't always work and, even when it does, wears off after about three years. Unlike Kathrens, who wrote the foreword to her book, Walker doesn't oppose PZP. But she does oppose gathers.
What struck me most about the horses I saw rounded up was their nonchalance. Horse activist propaganda notwithstanding, they didn't "stampede." Mostly they trotted. The helicopters, piloted by experienced cowboys who work on the ground as well, hovered a mile or so behind. Occasionally a horse would snort or whinny, but they clearly weren't "terrified." Their domestic genes became even clearer in the holding pen, where they calmly drank and ate. Of the 97 captured that day, not one sustained even minor injury.
Such facts are rarely reported because the media gets most of its information from the feral-horse lobby. Consider these rantings presented as news by Nevada's KLAS-TV's "chief investigative reporter," George Knapp: "The way it looks, BLM has decided to turn the mustangs into . . . a classified, off-limits, shadowy mystery, something no one in the government can talk about and no one in the civilian world can access." That's because: "Every time a band of horses nearly collapses after being driven in terror by roaring helicopter blades over miles of rough terrain, BLM gets pummeled." Knapp has even tried to tie Nevada gathers to the Gulf oil disaster by suggesting that the BLM's real motive for controlling feral horses is to free up land for a pipeline that will supply British Petroleum with natural gas. His source: Ginger Kathrens.
Consider also this fiction, tirelessly spun by Kathrens and then reported as news by the Billings Gazette: "The Pryor [Mountain] horses are direct descendants of the mounts used by Spanish Conquistadors." As with all feral horses, these are mongrels, descended from livestock owned by everyone who ever dumped or lost horses in the West from 1540 to 2010.
I did see a fair and balanced media response to my 2006 Audubon piece--from Felicity Barringer of The New York Times. More typical was NBC's Today Show, which dispatched a film crew to my house. I spent an afternoon quoting scientific literature and explaining what feral horses do to wildlife. With that NBC sent another crew to Montana to interview Dick Walton and Clayton McCracken--two wilderness advocates who had expressed alarm about gross damage by feral horses to the Pryor Mountains. According to Walton, the interviewer "had no apparent interest in the Pryors or what [Walton] had to say about them" and continually tried to bait him into advocating lethal control so as to present a convenient foil for Kathrens, who wants more, not fewer, feral horses on public land. When the Today Show piece aired it included not a word Walton, McCracken, or I had uttered and, as Walton accurately puts it, "was very much a romantic Cloud/Ginger spot including inaccurate and misleading info and certainly not indicating the real problem of damage to the land."
What will our federal government and Congress do about feral horses, which Salazar correctly observes are "out of control" and creating a "huge problem"? When BLM director Bob Abbey was pushing the Salazar Initiative, he issued this statement: "Everything is on the table for discussion except two things: (1) the euthanasia of excess healthy horses for which there is no adoption demand and (2) the unrestricted sale of unadopted animals." In other words, he intends to continue defying the directive Congress gave his agency with its amended Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act.