Wild horses and burros face unprecedented mass removal from our public lands in the West, after a key Senate committee appropriated tens of millions in new monies to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to carry out a plan cooked up by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), ASPCA, and the so-called American Mustang Foundation. The unexpected alignment of ranching interests and two prominent animal protection groups has disoriented the normal band of lawmakers who’d fight for the preservation and humane management of wild horses and burros, giving Republican lawmakers in the West a nearly unhindered political opportunity to execute on their long-held ambition to depopulate wild horses and burros dotting the sagebrush-flecked landscapes of the BLM.
At a time when most programs to protect endangered wildlife or enforce other animal protection laws are being flat-lined or defunded — with the Senate Appropriations Committee not even matching a House action to set aside just $2 million for an Animal Cruelty Crimes unit at the Department of Justice to enforce all of our federal anti-cruelty laws — the Senate Committee added an eye-popping $35 million to the BLM’s $80 million wild horse and burro program budget. That’s nearly a 50 percent increase to $115 million — an unheard-of, single-year spending hike. (The House version of the bill added $6 million to BLM’s wild horse and burro program — an amount that wild horse protection groups weeks ago decried as a dangerous spending boost to an agency that cannot be trusted to manage the animals humanely.)
With an $80 million budget for its wild horse and burro program, the BLM in 2018 rounded up more than 10,000 wild equids last year, running them to exhaustion at full gallop in helicopter chases and separating family groups before corralling and then shipping them off to short-term and long-term holding facilities. With its round-up culture and fealty to the ranching industry, the BLM could use all or nearly all of this new money to round up even more horses. The fear is, the agency will round up as many as 20,000 or more horses a year, swelling the number of horses in holding facilities. With 50,000 wild horses burros already in holding facilities, that number would balloon to 100,000 in two or three years. The holding operation already eats up two-thirds of BLM’s budget and doubling or tripling the numbers would have a budget-busting effect.
I have negotiated hundreds of animal welfare agreements with industry and lawmakers during my career in our field. So, it’s anything but my instinct to scold animal welfare parties for trying to find common ground with adversaries. Indeed, securing an agreement from parties or industries doing harm may be the best pathway to reduce violence against animals.
It’s the terms of the deal that matter. Especially so when dealing with adversaries with an entirely different world view and political constituency. A good deal must have specificity, clearly articulated benefits to animals, and leverage on enforcement.
In this case, the deal has none of that. The cattlemen’s association took the animal groups to the cleaners.
We have a federal agency, in the form of the BLM, that has long been an enabler of the cattle industry, turning the arid West into a free-for-all when it comes to public lands grazing. There are already 20 cattle and sheep for every wild horse on BLM lands. Christopher Ketcham’s new book, This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption Are Ruining the American West, is a devastating indictment of how the cattlemen have turned BLM into a bystander as they despoil our public lands and menace horses and other wildlife inhabiting these lands.
The BLM’s deference to the cattle industry has transcended any single administration, but it’s as bad now as ever, with the leadership of the agency embracing an extreme philosophy of deregulation (the number of horses rounded up in 2018 was the biggest number in a decade). The hopeful assumption by the HSUS and ASPCA that this BLM would broadly embrace humane fertility control and apply it across the range of wild horses and burros is a far-out hope, not a practical expectation. The Bureau’s personnel don’t have the experience or the know-how or the will.
HSUS and the ASPCA tout that, with this accord, they have won a concession from their adversaries not to send wild horses and burros to slaughter. In this year’s Agriculture and Interior department spending bills, there is language to forbid USDA from using funds to conduct federal inspections of horses for slaughter and to forbid BLM from allowing the sale of wild horses and burros for slaughter. Good news. But while we never take the insertion of that language for granted, animal advocates have secured this language year after year. The continuation of a one-year extension of narrow anti-slaughter language has, in the last decade, been nothing new.
What we haven’t seen in the wake of this agreement is the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association endorsement of comprehensive anti-horse slaughter legislation, the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act. That bill is the key to saving America’s horses and would forbid horse slaughtering operations in the U.S. and also the transport of wild or domesticated horses and burros to Canada or Mexico for slaughter. Don’t hold your breath waiting for NCBA to endorse that bill.
In short, the raison d’etre for this agreement — a one-year, no-slaughter wild horse and burro provision — was already baked. We’ve been able to secure that language year after year, even when Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress. With Democrats controlling the House, and a supermajority of lawmakers opposing horse slaughter after the 2018 mid-term elections, never has there been so little risk that the Congress would suspend its annual prohibition on slaughtering wild horse and burros. That’s like people, having seen the forecast promising a storm, doing a rain dance and claiming victory as the ground is soaked.
The appropriations process is among the least transparent of ways to address a complicated, multi-dimensional plan like the one proposed. There is no singular lawmaker heading the appropriations process, and the final language of whatever comes out of that process gets folded into a multi-billion-dollar, must-pass spending bill. The vast majority of lawmakers will favor or oppose the bill based on a much larger set of policy and spending priorities, and our allies may have little power to take off barnacles that got attached during the bill’s back-room formulations.
BLM and the Interior Department have a history of slow-walking and even fighting contraception. BLM has treated contraception as a “do-gooder” idea that cannot be broadly applied in the field. A small number of their field staff have been enthusiastic endorsers of contraception for a few horse and burro herds and participated in contraception programs largely driven by volunteers and animal protection groups. But many key agency personnel have warned that most herds cannot be contracepted because of the unsuitability of the terrain, the behavioral wariness of the horses in many herds, and for other reasons. This proposal asks the BLM, whose leadership is being moved from Washington DC to the West to be closer to the lands they manage, to transform its culture in a head-snapping moment. Ain’t gonna happen.
This proposal and accompanying legislation lack safeguards and suffers from terminal vagueness. If any of this turns out to be positive for horses, it won’t be because of its terms. While the backers of the proposal say that application of human fertility control is central to their plan, the legislative language doesn’t guarantee that even one dime will be used to treat horse and burros on the ground. Nor does it bar surgical sterilization, an inhumane procedure that removes the ovaries while the mare is conscious.
And remember, BLM is housed in the same agency (the Department of the Interior) that is seeking to remove federal protections for wolves and grizzlies in the West, that is working to gut the Endangered Species Act, scuttling a prior agreement between industry and conservation groups on sage grouse, and promoting oil and gas development on these same lands at a time when the planet faces a climate crisis. Do we really think that BLM is suddenly going to turn into a savior for wild horses and burros because of a loose guidance in a single open-ended paragraph in an annual spending bill that accompanies the additional hand-over of $35 million in taxpayer monies?
The best and most rational step forward is for the Congress to require, in very specific terms, BLM to expand its contraception programs and to fund that work for dozens of herds. If BLM demonstrates an ability to apply a humane fertility control program in a majority of Herd Management Areas, then it’s time to talk about a broader plan for managing horses and burros given the presence of a more trusted and reliable government agency.
I’ve been immersed in the wild horse and burro debate for years and have worked with players on all sides of it and been on the ground to see the federal government’s management actions and a number of contraception programs, largely conducted by outside groups with a minor assist from BLM field staff. The management of these animals in the complicated political environment is a Rubik’s Cube, and I’ve come to see many colors and angles of it. But it doesn’t take that kind of first-hand knowledge to know that “A Path Forward” as their plan is known, is leading us off a cliff.
And why give away this money in the final year of the first term of the Trump Administration? This is a hand-off to people who’ve already dramatically stepped up round-ups in 2018 and are committed to deregulation. This plan, with the current set of BLM leaders in place, is a prescription for depopulation of our wild horse and burros and the only thing that can save it in year two is a new President who comes in and cleans house at BLM. Giving away the keys to the bank now will produce looting in 2020.