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What is Happening to the Mustangs?

May 10, 2010
What is Happening to the Mustangs?

They are thought of as an American icon—last remnants of the West.

But when roundups such as the Calico Gather attract attention to horses being gathered and dieing in the process, this image starts to fade.

The debate over America’s wild horses is more than an issue of right and wrong, us or them. It involves multiple stakeholders and no simple solutions.

The Advocates

Organizations such as the Cloud Foundation were formed with the goal of preserving wild horses and burros on Western public lands. Makendra Silverman, Associate Director of the Cloud Foundation, said the number of wild horses is about 15,000-- much lower than the BLM estimate of 37,000.

“They skew the numbers to support their removal,” Silverman said.

The problem is there are other uses for public land that are being put as a higher priority than the mustangs, Silverman said. These uses include cattle grazing, gas pipelines, solar rays, and oil fields, she said.

The Cloud Foundation believes there is no horse overpopulation problem, Silverman said.

“It really comes down to not wanting to manage them at all on public land,” Silverman said. “It appears they’re trying to manage them to extinction.”

If the horses are left alone, a natural balance will work itself out, Silverman said.

“The thing to do would be granting them back the 30 million acres that have been taken away from them,” she said.

The BLM

The Bureau of Land Management on the other hand, does not believe there is a natural balance. Problems with horse overpopulation include lack of sufficient water and forage for horses and other wildlife.

Heather Emmons, Public Affairs Staff at the Bureau of Land Management, said there is a misconception that there is plenty of rangeland for horses when actually the range does not supply sufficient feed since horses do not eat sagebrush.

“Out here there’s not that much to eat and what there is is not very nourishing,” Emmons said.

Drought causes a huge concern for BLM, Emmons said. Twenty thousand of the estimated 37,000 wild horses are in Nevada where the country is high dessert with severe drought and scarce water sources.

In response to the concern about high mortality rate at recent gathers, Emmons said horses that were coming in were in very poor condition which caused death-- not the actual roundup.

Gathers are necessary because overpopulation causes a forage shortage and then horses start leaving the area in search of forage, said Chris Hanefeld, Public Affairs Specialist, BLM Ely District.

The Eagle and Silver King Herd Management areas, straddle U.S.Highway 93, Hanefeld said. Horses have started moving down along the side of the road in search of food and to lick salt off the road used in warming asphalt to melt ice. Motorists have reported wild horses on the highway and some have been hit..

In response, the BLM started using bait traps to capture the horses and move them out of danger, Hanefeld said. The BLM sets up temporary corrals around existing water or food sources. It is a slow and tedious process, and is a “very passive method of trapping horses,” Hanefeld said.

However, the BLM cannot use this method all the time. Rounding up the horses using helicopters is a major concern of the public and advocacy groups. To the BLM, it is the most efficient.

Since horses are gathered from large herd management areas, helicopters cover the most ground, Emmons said. The goal is to guide the horses into the trap by trotting, not running.

“Actually, that’s the most humane method,” Emmons said.

The reason some horses die after being gathered is not because they have been run hard, Emmons said, but because they were in such poor condition already and often have to be put down or have trouble transitioning to the feed in captivity.

The Rancher

While the advocacy groups think the BLM is too active, ranchers wish they would be do even more. Hank Vogler ranches cattle and sheep for a living on public land in Nevada’s White Pine and Elko Counties.

Vogler’s range only has three percent of the forage left because it has all been taken by the mustangs, he said. The difference between cattle grazing and horse grazing is that cattle are moved to give the range a time to recuperate while horses are not. The horses stay on the same area all year long and destroy it, and then the ranchers are not allowed to bring livestock back onto the area.

“They have consumed all the forage that will feed and clothe my family,” Vogler said.

Vogler not only sees the effects wild horse overpopulation has on himself and his range, but also the poor condition of the horses. Besides starvation, Vogler believes inbreeding is a major problem.

“I do not know a horse person in the world that would allow the gross inbreeding that’s going on,” Vogler said.

Vogler has also seen horses starving in the winter time when they do not have enough feed. One particularly bad winter he saw horses eating each other’s manes and tails and laying on the ground dieing of starvation.

“What we’re doing to these horses is the cruelest thing we’ve ever done to an animal in the name of preserving them,” Vogler said. “We’re not preserving them—we’re destroying them.”

Is There a Solution?

In the winter, Hank Vogler sees wild horses forced out of the mountains because of heavy snow. He believes it would be a perfect time for the BLM to hold an emergency gather because the horses are easily accessible. But by the time a gather is put together, the populations have doubled, he said.

“Nothing is designed to solve the problem,” Vogler said. “It’s like taking a bucket of water out of the ocean and expecting the water level to drop.”

The BLM is focusing attention on fertility control and has done a lot of research on the topic, Heather Emmons said. However, even though they are progressing in this area, it is only about 90 percent successful and starts tapering off after a year.

“It’s imperative we continue to manage the numbers,” Emmons said.

The adoption market is not what it used to be and it is harder to find homes for the horses, Emmons said.

The wild horses have even attracted the attention of President Obama who has requested a $12 million increase in his Fiscal Year 2011 BLM budget proposal for the wild horse and burro program, according to BLM.gov. The proposal also requests $42.5 million for the purchase of land for one wild horse preserve.

What will be done on this issue remains to be seen, but any solution will take cooperation and funding from all relevant parties to do what is best for America’s wild horses.

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