Wild, free and out of control
“In my world, everyone’s a pony, and they all eat rainbows and poop butterflies.” So proclaims cat-like creature Katie in the movie version of Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who. Sharing Katie’s world are feral-horse support groups -- whose members number in the millions -- and NBC, which regularly recycles their fantasies.
For example, on May 14, the Today Show aired fictional accounts of how the Bureau of Land Management brutalizes feral livestock incorrectly called “wild horses.” As usual, the show cherry-picked commentary from ecologically illiterate extremists who want more, not fewer, feral horses on public land, and who allege that the BLM roundups, which are mandated by law, are “offensive,” “cruel” and “unnecessary.”
Never mentioning wildlife, host Lisa Myers quickly spun the issue into a simple conflict between “mustangs and powerful livestock interests who want cheap grazing on federal lands.” A revealing moment came when she asked Ginger Kathrens, one of the nation’s loudest feral-horse advocates, if she’d “rather have a wild horse starve to death and be free than live in captivity?” Kathrens answered in the affirmative.
Also never mentioned, because it would spoil NBC’s story line that everyone loves “mustangs,” is the fact the network’s CEO Steven Burke is outraged by the BLM’s plan to move 700 feral horses to a holding facility next to his Ennis, Mont., ranch. He considers it a threat to habitat and has gone to the Interior Board of Land Appeals to get it stopped.
The BLM is doing its best at an impossible job. In 1971, Congress required it to manage feral horses so as “to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands.” But feral horses can’t exist anywhere in North America in “natural ecological balance” because they’re aliens here, without natural predators. The agency can’t catch a break. For avoiding effective lethal control of feral horses, it was eviscerated by the Government Accountability Office in 2008. But given the mindset of the American public, effective lethal control is politically impossible. So feral horses proliferate. Currently, there are about 40,000 animals loose on BLM lands and almost 50,000 more on perpetual welfare in BLM corrals at an annual cost to the public of $78 million. And that’s not counting the feral horses on private and tribal lands, national parks, national forests and national wildlife refuges.
The mantra from the feral-horse lobby is that because a different and diminutive equid roamed the continent before going extinct during the Pleistocene, modern horses are “native wildlife.” That’s like saying the presence of mastodons in the Lake States 10,000 years ago makes African elephants native to the Midwest.
Horses are the only ungulates on the continent with meshing top and bottom teeth and one-piece hooves. Vegetation in most of the West did not evolve to cope with these adaptations.
“When the grass between the shrubs is gone, a cow is out of luck,” says retired BLM biologist Erick Campbell, who managed feral horses for 30 years. “But a horse will stomp that plant to death to get that one last blade. When cows run out of forage the cowboys move them, but horses are out there all year.”
In Australia, where the ecological literacy rate is far higher than in the United States, feral horses are routinely shot in what Sustainability Minister Andrew McNamara accurately describes as the most humane form of control.
“Feral horses,” he declares, “are causing serious erosion, spreading weeds, destroying freshwater springs and other water courses, damaging aboriginal cultural sites, competing with native wildlife for feed and destroying habitat.”
Between 2006 and 2011, a U.S. ban on slaughtering all horses for human consumption created a brisk export business as well as a toxic-waste problem because unwanted animals had to be euthanized with barbiturate injections. But with slaughterhouses now reopening in Oklahoma and New Mexico and probably other states, the White House is urging Congress to renew the ban.
On the Yakama Indian Reservation in southern Washington, 12,000 feral horses are nuking wildlife habitat, and tribal chair Harry Smiskin is trying to educatePresident Obama. “Certainly, the White House and the USDA have meat on their cafeteria menus,” Smiskin wrote him in March. “But for some reason, horses are considered sacrosanct. We should not manage these horses based on purely emotional arguments, storybooks or movies.”
Because I write about native ecosystems, a camera crew from the Today Showappeared at my door a few years back seeking “the wildlife side of the mustang story.” For the better part of a day, I told the reporter everything I knew and then directed her to biologists and botanists who could tell her more. When the show aired, wildlife wasn’t mentioned. Instead, America got the standard monologues about a world where the mean BLM is keeping all the happy horses from eating rainbows and pooping butterflies.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.