There Is Limited Space for Wild Horses Both on and Off Range

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Wild horses, long a totem of the American frontier, are at the heart of an increasingly tense dispute over their fate. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) says their numbers continue to grow at an unmanageable rate, despite years of removing wild horses from the range to enclosed pastures so that wildlife and livestock can share the land. Horse advocates contend that the government’s approach has not only failed but is also needlessly cruel, and they say the horses should be able to live out their lives freely.

Horse advocates like Carol Walker view the long-term strategy of the Bureau of Land Management as untenable.Credit…Matthew Staver for The New York Times

Despite deep differences on how the animals should be managed, both sides agree on one thing: the situation has reached a tipping point. These days, the temporary holding pens and long-term pastures where many wild horses end up are nearing capacity or full, and the cost of caring for them has ballooned over the past decade. Horse advocates like Carol Walker view the long-term strategy of the Bureau of Land Management as untenable.

An 80-acre Cañon City, Colorado, wild horse and burro holding facility “Here, all of their requirements are satisfied. apart from their liberty, a B.L.M. representative said. “I’m not sure whether they want it or not.”Give credit…The New York Times’ Matthew Staver

The question of what to do with the animals — descendants of United States Cavalry horses, workhorses, and horses brought here by Spanish settlers — has confounded the federal government for decades. Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, allowing the bureau to remove “excess” wild horses from the range. However, herds typically double every four years with virtually no natural predators. Currently, about 37,300 wild horses and burros roam across federal rangeland in 10 Western states, about 11,000 more than what the bureau deems manageable.

Each year, the bureau conducts roundups to thin the population, driving the animals into traps before they are taken to holding pens and permanent pastures. The roundups have long been criticized as inhumane and dangerous. Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, believes that there needs to be a more humane and cost-effective way of managing these animals.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is facing a challenge in managing public lands, with nearly 50,000 wild horses and burros housed at temporary holding pens or pastures. The agency defends this approach as the only option given the circumstances, minimizing injuries and ensuring that the horses are well-cared for. However, the bureau acknowledges that gathering more horses is not a panacea, as nearly 50,000 are already housed at temporary holding pens or pastures, more than triple the number from a decade ago.

The Cañon City facility is well-cared for, but drought and wintry conditions can make life on the range especially harsh. A prison inmate training program at the center will also prepare some of the mustangs for adoption. Advocates say that the trauma of being separated from their families and the range leaves the horses dispirited and stressed. This month, a strange illness sickened horses at Cañon City, and 19 died or were euthanized.

Arguments about whether holding pens or long-term pastures are acceptable homes may be moot, as there is little room to care for any more horses. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said that there has been progress made in finding a solution, such as using fertility-control drugs on mares and looking into developing sanctuaries where more horses can live.

In recent months, horse advocates have ratcheted up criticism of Salazar and the bureau, after the bureau had sold 1,777 wild horses to a Colorado livestock hauler, Tom Davis, a proponent of horse slaughtering. The Interior Department’s inspector general is investigating whether Davis sold the horses over the Mexican border for slaughter.

Several safeguards have been put in place to ensure wild horses are kept safe after sale. Horse advocates like Carol Walker view the bureau’s long-term strategy as untenable, as they would rather see the horses free than live with them.

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