Amid cries of protests, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has begun its wild horse roundup in Nevada's Calico Mountains Complex. Aiming to capture 2,500 "excess" wild horses from these private lands using helicopter and horseback wranglers, the action is causing everyone from Willie Nelson to T. Boone Picken's wife to cry foal, but there simply may not be enough land to go around.
The BLM insists that the roundup - which may take up to two months - is necessary to protect both land and animal; that there are more wild horses than there are natural resources over 542,000 acres. They contend that without some sort of herd control, the surging population of these animals (who have no natural predators) will lead to starvation and suffering.
Of course, local ranchers who also use that land for grazing have considerable stake in the matter and it's worth noting that the BLM recently increased allotted cattle grazing on the Calico Complex.
"Herd sizes double about every four years. To put a moratorium on gathers (roundups) would be untenable."
--Tom Gorey, BLM spokesman
Keep in mind that the BLM will not be rounding up all the horses. In fact, they intend to keep 800-900 horses remaining on the land in the Black Rock region. They will also be tweaking the herd's male/female sex ratio, making it 60/40 percent. And, in further attempts to control the population, will administer "fertility control measures" on mares that will be re-released within the herd.
Now, this is not exactly a new 'solution', it's been going on for nearly four decades. So why is this a big deal all of a sudden?
"The gather is consistent with the provisions of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, which mandates that the BLM will remove excess wild horses to achieve a population within the established appropriate management level (AML), to protect rangeland resources from further deterioration associated with the wild horse overpopulation, and to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance and multiple use relationship in the area."
[Fun Fact: The proposed R.O.A.M Act (Restore Our American Mustangs) seeks to amend the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act and "improve the management and long-term health of wild free-roaming horses and burros." The bill currently sits in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee and oddly enough, was authored by Southerner, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV).]
Turns out, the roundups have become a big deal since BLM, under the Bush administration, proposed - then rescinded - a plan to euthanize unadoptable wild horses in captivity. Though horse slaughter was legal in the U.S. until 2007, the idea of the BLM putting these animals down sent horse advocates into a white hot rage. Though the current Interior Secretary Ken Salazar proposed buying land to create national horse sanctuaries, advocates rejected this plan as a "dressed-up version of the status quo."
Animal advocates insist that mass herding and capture will endanger the animals, forcing a life of captivity. Old horses will be sent to permanent holding facilities in the Midwest and young ones go to short-term facilities and put up for adoption. Thanks to the economy, rates of adoption have fallen dramatically, although the agency expects about 3,500 horses to be adopted in the next year.
Protests are organized in places like San Francisco, Las Vegas, Idaho and Colorado. The goal is to apply pressure on the Obama administration to impose a moratorium on the roundups.
"We are very, very disappointed this is happening under the Obama administration. This will devastate the herd and have a devastating impact on the horses left behind."
-- Suzanne Roy, program director at In Defense of Animals, which has sued in federal court to halt the roundups
Even the seasonal timing of the roundup is being hotly debated. Horse advocates say that winter round up threatens the animals' health because of the cold temperatures and rugged terrain, and that foals will likely become separated from their mothers. Meanwhile, BLM insists that winter is best because the horses will be at a lower elevation and can be secured over a shorter distance with less stress.
In addition to Willie Nelson and Madeline Pickens, Sheryl Crow and Viggo Mortensen have also gotten behind the issue. (Check out their video here.)
Of course, this is not merely a horse issue, it is more about humans than anything. The wild horse is our last live symbol of the American West and it inspires intense emotion about our national heritage. I guran-damn-tee you that there would not be such an uproar over the rounding up of wild sheep or free-roaming goats.
I first got a whiff of this emotion while visiting the campus of University of Texas at Austin and stumbled upon a grand sculpture of wild horses. The sentiment was quite clear in the inscription: "Mustangs: They carried the men who made Texas." There are very few things on earth that can humble a Texan but a horse is one of them.
Then, while taking in a California rodeo a few years back, a friend and I were watching the amazing Chris Cox demonstrate mind-blowing horsemanship from the saddle with no reins, no bit - nothing. He was wearing a microphone and talked to the crowd as he commanded his horse to perform all kinds of crazy stunts - all with his legs and his seat. He began talking about the horse and ended up going on a bit of a rant:
"It is ridiculous to me that the bald eagle is the national symbol of America. What did the eagle do to help build this land? NOTHING. The horse has been there all along, working in partnership. The horse has done more than any animal in building this nation, bar none. I don't care what they say, the horse is the only true symbol of America."
Mind you, he said all this while sitting rigidly still on a horse that was spinning him around; Chris was practically talking to himself. Still, I thought his argument made perfect sense and have put forth this same argument many times myself since that day.
"The situation is unpatriotic. What represents freedom more than wild horses? We are a country born in hoof sparks. … I do think most Americans are not happy about this stripping away of our heritage."
--Deanne Stillman, author of Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, in USA Today
Years later, I had a wonderfully intense stare-down with a wild horse in North Dakota. He was a big black lead stallion and sniffed, snorted and harrumphed in my general direction. It was spellbinding - a moment frozen in time against a clear blue sky and the grey-orange Black Hills. Imagining that wild spirit being chased down by a helicopter does pain me in a deeply patriotic place, somewhere near my heart.
“We must act now before the BLM has managed these magnificent animals into extinction."
I would offer that the wild mustang is the only animal that IS an American and the idea of rounding them up instills a sense of national imprisonment. Furthermore, I can't help but think we are seeing a foreshadowing of our own situation. Too many beings on limited land? Not enough water to go around? At the rate of human population, we will eventually face this situation on a much more personal level.
But for now, we're worried about the horses. As with humans, the solution might be quite similar. And so, for more information about where to adopt one of these magnificent beings, go here.
From the Left has some updates on the efforts to reach politicians on the matter:
"A group of celebrities, including singer Sheryl Crow and actor Viggo Mortensen, objected to the roundup in an open letter to President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) last week. Obama — typically, had no comment, but a spokesman for Reid said Monday that the senator was disappointed with the BLM’s handling of the horses.
'The BLM has failed to properly manage these herds for many years, requiring the large gather,' said Jon Summers, Reid’s spokesman."
Meanwhile, Karen, over at Wild and Free Weekly, ponders her life's decision to run the Corolla Wild Horse Fund - a lifelong passion:
"The never ending fight to keep them wild and free is complex and pressing. The wild horse is systematically being removed from the west due to pressures from lucrative cattle grazing deals. We cannot let the same thing happen to our wild horses as a result of irresponsible development or irresponsible behavior. Development is inevitable but it must be done in a way that is respectful to our fragile coastal ecosystem and wildlife."
Finally, Zeke over at Zeke Says So, surmises that the horse issue stands as a metaphor for freedom:
"Being an adult often means accepting the fact that sometime you are not going to get your way, and that sometimes certain problems have no 'good' solution, only a 'less worse' one. The real question is, will wild horse advocates prefer to have these animals starve to death in remote mountain canyons, or die from disease from malnutrition this winter or next summer when the advocates are wake boarding up at Tahoe? I seriously wonder who has the horses best interest in mind."
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