It’s bad enough that the US Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management can’t keep its sticky fingers off free-living horses of the West.
It’s absurd enough the Bureau claims a five-figure population of free-roaming horses and burros is too big — while ranchers, covetous of any blade of grass or drop of water these horses find, graze more than five million cows, buffalo, sheep and goats on public lands.1
It’s shameful enough that the Bureau takes the horses and burros — animals the agency is responsible for protecting — away from the land to which they were born, and severs these animals’ own relationships. That it privatizes these horses and burros — more than 216,000 of them over the years — selling them at auctions and sale yards, or “adopting” them off — taking $125 per head, under current law, as the minimum adoption fee.
It’s disgraceful enough that the government even threatens to kill them.2
It’s nauseating enough that the government enables people to break free-living mustangs and turn them into lifestyle accessories through schemes such as the “Extreme Mustang Makeover” — a circus-like spectacle complete with hoops of fire, which is trumpeted by Mustang car maker Ford as though it were some kind of noble environmental activity.
And now, in one of the bitterest twists of all, these so-called American icons will not only be made to march at the forthcoming inaugural parade, but also used to guard the US borders. Instead of moving uncontrolled, these horses will be trained and enlisted to stop humans from moving uncontrolled.
I received a message from the National Public Outreach Specialist at the Bureau’s Wild Horse and Burro Program earlier this month telling me I ought to think it’s all awesome. Here’s the entire message:
From: Bureau of Land Management Wildhorse and Burro [mailto:whb-news@Bureau of Land Management.gov]
Sent: December 17, 2008 2:45 PM
Subject: BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT Wild Horse and Burro Program
Hello Lee Hall, J.D.,
I just wanted to share with everyone an article that is really awesome. Our Mustangs are going to be \”strutting their stuff\” at the inaugural parade in January. Some of you may know that the U.S. Border Patrol, both North and South, are using Mustangs as their choice of the best \”breed\” for the type of work; endurance, sure-footedness, sense of danger, etc. There is an article on the national wild horse and burro website regarding the parade. Please visit [tiny url]
I am not sure if you URL will work in this form of an e-mail, so, if not, please go to www.wildhorseandburro.Bureau of Land Management.gov. Then go to Newsletter and News (right navigation bar), click on Success Stories and you will find the article. It is the last one shown.
YEAH, for our Nation\’s Living Legends!
National Public Outreach Specialist
Janet_Neal@Bureau of Land Management.gov
To unsubscribe from this mailing list, please visit [tiny url]
These hapless horses are now involuntarily participating in the border militarization which has destroyed so many communities of free-living animals even as it has killed so many human beings. When migrants at the southern border die in the summer, it’s after first falling unconscious or succumbing to seizures and finally heart failure. The fluids from their defeated organs seep out onto the earth. In winter, they die on dunes and in canyons, shivering uncontrollably, losing their ability to grip, and then to think, to move at all; their pulses slow, their pupils dilate, their skin turns bluish and their breathing fails. Still, people come. They come when the need to feed their families overwhelms their fear of detention or death. Wild horses surely wouldn’t keep them away.
At the same time, border construction has disrupted the lives of the few remaining Sonoran pronghorn antelopes — beings who never got hung up on the dividing line between nations until a big fence was built on it. Road-building for patrols near the Tijuana Estuary disturbs coastal sage scrub birds. The habitat of mountain lions and black bears, Mexican spotted owls, and the elusive, solitary jaguars revered by ancient Aztecs and Mayans, is being irreparably torn and fragmented. Stadium lights and security equipment upsets nocturnal animals and those with natural radar. As Julia Whitty explains, the 700-mile border wall is, from an ecological perspective, severing the spine of the Americas “at the lumbar, paralyzing the lower continent.”3
The ecological balance of a hemisphere apparently does not strike much of our officialdom as awesome — or even noticeable. It would be nice to think change is going to come. But Barack Obama was one of the supporters of the law that, when signed by Bush in 2006, authorized the grotesque barrier. Wall proponents want the thing completed by the close of June 2009.
We ourselves may well be headed for extinction, because so many living beings with whom our physical lives are intertwined are disappearing from nature. If the trend, which walls and fences exacerbate, continues at the current rate, more than half of all plant and animal species will be gone by 2100. The unremitting spate of extinctions — even more than escalated climate change — is the most certain threat to human life on Earth.4 Notably, of those species recorded as recently extinct, more lived in the United States than anywhere else, followed by the United Republic of Tanzania, Uganda and Mauritius.
“The wild mustang has been an inspiration for Ford Motor Company for decades.” So says a corporate press release. The wild mustang, described through a singular noun: an inspiration, a living legend, an icon of the West, a concept for car designers instead of a community of individual horses and burros with distinct characters, cohabitants of the land who know each others’ struggles. Human laws and customs treat other animals as a pool of potentially useful natural resources, scientific specimens, pets, food or entertainment. Unfettered ones are mist-like and unreal, fetishes or symbols of the past, mascots or marketing concepts. We’ve systematically obstructed our ability to perceive them as beings with their own interests and experiences.
Ford taps into the public notion that adoption into private ownership is a saving grace for horses struggling to survive. That rationale misses some critical points. First, a benefit is not conferred on these animals when we pull their territory out from under them and auction them off or otherwise put them into private hands.
About 200 years ago, three million wild horses roamed most of the North American continent, in evident harmony with the rest of the biocommunity.5 At the beginning of the 20th century, 2 million mustangs roamed free.6 Now, including those stored in government pens, there are merely a few tens of thousands. Alarmingly, and despite the limited numbers of genetically viable herds, the Bureau of Land Management and the Humane Society of the United States have collaborated in subjecting these animals to invasive experiments with the contraceptive porcine zona pellucida. The Bureau of Land Management claims that reducing and repressing the free-roaming equine population is necessary to maintain a natural and ecological balance between these animals and watersheds, vegetation, and ranches. The claim is result-oriented. Cattle ranches have no part in the natural and ecological balance.
The mission of the Bureau of Land Management is, in part, “to sustain the health and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”7 But ranchers, for whose convenience the horses and burros are snatched from their habitat, are devastating public lands, usurping precious water and oxygen-giving trees. The United States — home to about 5% of the world’s population — generates approximately 24% of the world’s extra greenhouse gases.8 A major cause is animal agribusiness, responsible for large amounts of methane, a gas that packs more than 20 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, and for 65% of human-related nitrous oxide, a gas with nearly 300 times CO2’s potency. And this business expands our population’s footprint by clearing forests solely to grow feed for animals bred to be killed.
And it’s all unnecessary. Thus, boycotting ranchers’ products and exerting pressure on the government to stop subsidies to animal agribusiness are genuine ways to help horses and burros. Depriving them of their freedom is not.
On Their Own Terms
The West is overpopulated, but not by horses. Where the land is not overtaken by concrete, only a few strongholds of dense forest and some ice peaks are free from the effects of animal agribusiness, which gradually destroys waterways, shelters and food for birds and other animals. But there are precedents for reversing the damage. Twenty years ago, land around the San Pedro River in southeastern Arizona, where the Bureau of Land Management had long granted grazing permits, had become a barren wasteland. On 1 January 1988, the Bureau instituted a moratorium on nearly all cattle grazing. Congress subsequently designated the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area a nature preserve of 58,000 acres. The river deepened, and fish reappeared. Native grasses and bushes thrive once more.9
The treatment of North American horses to date is, in contrast, anything but a success. More than a million wild horses once roamed Canada, but in the 1960s, after decades of continual shooting and slaughtering, only four small herds existed.10 By 1974, the Alberta herd had been reduced to about 1,000 — too small to maintain its genetic health. The other three herds, all in British Columbia, are now gone.11
In 1971, Richard Nixon signed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act into US law. Responding to a public outcry over roundups, the law directed the Bureau of Land Management to protect the animals. Nevertheless, roundups were codified in the law. Lawmakers simply failed to consider these animals on their own terms. They described the equids as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” — rhetoric befitting a made-for-television western of that time, when most people thought nature could be treated as though it existed for human purposes alone, and global warming was yet unheard of. The Act’s mission needs updating to match current human knowledge and an evolving environmental ethic.
Moreover, free-roaming horses and burros have their own interests. They should be entitled to genuine protection. No exemptions or permits should exist to sell or remove a wild free-roaming horse or burro from the public lands. Free-roaming equids should be just that: free from roundup, capture, sterilization, and deliberate harassment — and any obligation to defend politics and borders they have nothing to do with.
- See Bureau of Land Management Public Lands Statistics, “Summary of the Authorized Use of Grazing District Lands” (FY 2004). [↩]
- On 23 October 2008, Sally Spencer, Director of Marketing for Wild Horses and Burros, told Friends of Animals 30,000 horses are being stored in corrals, and their futures would be decided at an advisory meeting on 17 November 2008; options proposed included stepping up adoptions, selling the animals without limitation, killing them, or requesting more money for management purposes. [↩]
- Julia Whitty, “Gone: Mass Extinction and the Hazards of Earth’s Vanishing Biodiversity,” Mother Jones, 25 Apr. 2007. [↩]
- See ibid. [↩]
- Robert Alison, “Last Roundup Feared for Canada’s Wild Horses,” Toronto Star, 15 Oct. 2005. [↩]
- Deanne Stillman, “Wild Horses Aren’t Free,” Los Angeles Times, 2 Jun. 2008. [↩]
- As stated on the Bureau of Land Management website, in the public release “BLM’s ‘Seeds of Success’ Program Aimed at Improving Health and Productivity of Public Lands” (24 Aug. 2007): “The Bureau’s multiple-use mission is to sustain the health and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” [↩]
- See generally U.S. Dept. of Energy, Energy Information Administration, “Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States 2003,” Report #: DOE/EIA-0573 (2003) (released 13 Dec. 2004), at page 2 (“US Emissions in a Global Perspective”), following the Executive Summary. [↩]
- David Kreuper et al., US Geological Service’s Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Center, “Response of Vegetation and Breeding Birds to the Removal of Cattle on the San Pedro River, Arizona” (2003). [↩]
- See “Last Roundup Feared for Canada’s Wild Horses,” note 5 (citing information from the Canadian Wild Horse Preservation Society). [↩]
- See “Last Roundup Feared for Canada’s Wild Horses,” note 5. Additionally, some 300 free-roaming horses exist in relative privacy on Sable Island, off Nova Scotia. Before they were legally protected, they were subject to roundups and use as “pit ponies” in coal mines and for other purposes. The free-roaming population of about 150 horses on the islands of Chincoteague and Assateague off the eastern US coast are accessible by road to tourists, and horses from this population are rounded up yearly and auctioned off for fundraising purposes by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. [↩]