Wild and free – and headed for the slaughterhouse

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On a clear and blazing day in late May, a white pickup truck jolted along a narrow road through a remote stretch of the Disappointment Valley northwest of Dolores and east of Dove Creek.

Though the hillsides burst with fiery yellow and smoky purple wildflowers, the landscape was anything but lush. Dry creekbeds shone white with alkali; the soil, upon close inspection, bore more tough shrubs than tender grass or flowers – green rabbitbrush and black sage, along with some Indian ricegrass and needle-and-thread.

“Keep your eyes open,” the driver, Pati Temple of McElmo Canyon, told her two passengers. “They could be anywhere.”

Suddenly the truck bounced over a rise and a band of about a dozen horses – brown, black, gray – became visible.

All looked well-fed and healthy, despite the bleak landscape; several had gangly foals trotting at their sides. “There they are,” Temple said. “Look at the stallion! Isn’t he beautiful?” A gray, well-muscled stallion eyed the truck warily as it approached, then turned and moseyed away. He seemed little concerned, but when the three humans left the truck and began to walk toward the horses, he suddenly swung and started toward them. The visitors beat a hasty and undignified retreat.

Later, as the truck jolted along another road, a second small band of horses appeared, this time mostly paints. These mustangs didn’t wait for a closer look but galloped swiftly away, manes flying, into a valley where a couple of distant pronghorns also could be seen.

It was an idyllic vision that might have been taken from a book by Walter Farley, Marguerite Henry or Mary O’Hara.

The bond between human and horse has been the stuff of legend ever since the first intrepid person climbed aboard an equine back. Celebrated in story and song for their beauty, speed and intelligence, horses – especially wild horses – hold a special place in our hearts.

But the true picture of wild-horse life in America isn’t romantic. It includes, of course, great privations and struggles to exist on the acreage still allotted to the horses. Lately, it also includes the grim image of wild horses being slaughtered and served on dinner plates in Europe, or ground into pet food.

Last year, Sen. Conrad Burns (RMont.) quietly attached a rider to the giant Omnibus Appropriations Bill, which was passed by Congress in December. The rider allows some wild horses to be sold for slaughter. The practice enrages people like Temple, a member of the National Mustang Association’s Colorado chapter, which looks after the Spring Creek herd. She and her husband have adopted and gentled five mustangs. She admires them for their intelligence and gentleness, their wild yet sociable nature. And she believes they deserve better at the hands of human beings.

“The public is in love with horses in general and wild horses in particular,” she said. “Most people, I don’t believe, know about the Burns rider.”

But word is spreading. A rising public outcry caused the Bureau of Land Management, the agency responsible for managing most of the nation’s wild horse and burro herds, to shut down its sales April 27 after it was learned that 41 horses had been resold and slaughtered at an Illinois meat-packing plant. Six of them had been sold in Cañon City to a former rodeo cowboy who claimed he wanted them for a church youth group.

The BLM resumed sales in May after adopting new regulations that provide criminal penalties for people who knowingly sell or resell a wild horse for slaughter.

The BLM is also trying to work out agreements with the nation’s slaughterhouses so that they will reject any wild horses or burros. However, critics say the regulations aren’t enough. On May 19, the U.S. House passed an amendment (on its way the Senate at press time) that cut funding for the controversial BLM sales program. (Colorado Third District Congressional Rep. John Salazar voted against the amendment.)

Horses native to North America

Horses are native to North America, but they disappeared around 7000 B.C., probably hunted to extinction by early man. They returned millennia later with the arrival of the Spaniards in the 1500s and became enormously popular, numbering 2 million or 3 million by the late 1800s.

But when automobiles were invented the horse lost popularity, and many were turned loose to join wild herds. They were viewed as competitors to livestock. There followed an era of great butchery during which horses were hunted for sport and slaughter, chased by helicopters and motor vehicles, run off cliffs, tied to tires to exhaust them, shot in corrals like fish in a bucket or stuffed into trucks half-alive to be hauled to slaughterhouses.

Velma Johnston, a Nevada secretary who earned the nickname “Wild Horse Annie,” reportedly spotted blood leaking out of a livestock truck and followed it to a rendering plant. Inside she discovered mustangs so crowded that one had been trampled to death. She began a campaign that led to a 1959 law that forbade the use of aircraft or motor vehicles to capture wild horses or burros. Then, after a prolonged public outcry that sent more letters pouring in to Congress than any issue except the Vietnam War, the Wild Free-Roaming Horse & Burro Act was passed in 1971.

The act proclaimed wild horses and burros to be “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” and stated “that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene.”

It put the BLM and, in some cases, the U.S. Forest Service in charge of managing the herds, and said the horses could remain in the areas where they were in existence when the act was passed.

The law also stipulated that the animals be managed at their then-current population level, which the BLM estimated at 17,000. Horse advocates and some scientists later said that was a gross underestimate – the BLM counted 42,000 horses just three years later when it did its first census. But 17,000 remained a target level.

The BLM Adopt-a-Horse program was created in 1976.

In addition, two measures, S. 576 and H.R. 297, have been introduced that would permanently restore the prohibition on the commercial sale and slaughter of wild free-roaming horses and burros.

But even while the prohibition was in place, wild horses were still being slaughtered for food. A 1997 Pulitzer- Prize-winning series by the Associated Press found that up to 90 percent of the animals rounded up by the BLM were being slaughtered. In some cases, BLM employees were adopting the horses for the minimum $125 fee and then reselling them for a profit.

And there is no prohibition on selling domestic horses for consumption; some 60,000, most still in good condition, are sold for slaughter every year in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But wild horses and burros are supposed to be protected from such actions by the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse & Burro Act.

And beyond the sensational issue of whether mustangs and burros can be sold for dog food or gourmet meals, a larger debate remains over how many of the animals the nation’s public lands can sustain.

BLM officials maintain that the horses are continually overpopulating their allotted areas and have to be periodically culled, whether through adoption or sales.

Wild-horse advocates, however, contend that it’s ridiculous to say there is an excess of wild horses when there are only about 37,000 nationwide, compared to some 4 million cattle and sheep occupying public lands.

“Overpopulation? If I hear that one more time, I’m going to scream,” said Karen Sussman, president of the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros, the oldest such group in the United States. “In 1971 there were 60,000 wild horses and burros in the West. Today there are 36,000. By the time they finish it will be down to 23,000.”

The BLM has “zeroed out,” or eliminated, 100 herds since 1971 and reduced the animals’ range by more than 15 million acres, said Sussman, who cares for three wild herds on her South Dakota ranch that were removed from public lands. “That isn’t overpopulation, it’s an onslaught.”

The BLM reportedly wants to cut the mustang and burro population to 25,000 by 2006. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has complained to Congress about wild horses reducing forage for livestock. But grazing conflicts aren’t the only reason mustangs may be reduced in numbers.

One of Colorado’s four remaining wild herds, the West Douglas near Parachute, may be removed from its range because of oil and gas development. An Environmental Assessment is expected to be made public shortly regarding an amendment that will review the question of whether to retain the West Douglas herd, which now numbers 97, according to Francis Ackley, the BLM’s wild-horse program leader for Colorado.

“It’s an awful dense (oil and gas) development area there and it may alter the territory of the horses,” Ackley explained. Thus the horses may move off their designated territory. By law mustangs can’t be maintained on any other public lands than those where they were when the 1971 act was passed.

Nationwide, wild horses and burros are scattered across 10 Western states, with the largest number in Nevada. They are confined to Herd Management Areas, which must be bounded by fences or natural topographical barriers so the horses can’t stray. Mustangs share the range with wildlife and domestic livestock grazing under permits.

Colorado’s four herds are in:

  • The 22,000-acre Spring Creek HMA in the Disappointment;
  • The 123,000-acre Piceance Basin HMA west of Meeker, home to the West Douglas Herd;
  • The Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range near Grand Junction,
  • The 160,000-acre Sandwash Basin HMA northwest of Craig.

The areas currently hold a total of about 800 adult mustangs (there are no wild burros in Colorado), Ackley said. It doesn’t sound like many, but the BLM says the ideal number is 400 to 500.

Mustang herds reproduce at anywhere from 5 to 30 percent a year, with 15 percent being the average. When numbers rise above the Appropriate Management Level for an HMA, a roundup, or “gather,” is generally scheduled.

The last gather in Colorado took place at Little Book Cliffs in October 2004, Ackley said. Seventy-eight horses were removed; 50 of them were adopted, some older ones will be taken to sanctuaries, and another dozen were shipped to adoptions elsewhere in the country, he said.

Because there have been no gathers since the Burns rider passed in December, it hasn’t yet affected how wild horses are handled in Colorado, Ackley said.

But more gathers are coming. Five years after its last roundup, the Spring Creek herd may be facing one in August. A count taken in May found that the herd contains 93 adults, with 12 foals and probably more on the way, said Bob Ball, the BLM naturalresource specialist responsible for overseeing the herd.

“That’s high,” Ball said, adding that the ALM is 35 to 65.

Before any gather, an environmental assessment must be completed, followed by a public-comment period. If the gather gets the go-ahead, an adoption will follow at the Montezuma County Fairgrounds.

It’s what will happen at that roundup, and others like it nationwide, that concerns wild-horse advocates. For decades, young mustangs that were rounded up were offered for adoption, while older ones and others not likely to be adopted were supposed to be taken to long-term holding facilities in Oklahoma and Kansas.

Rules required that anyone adopting a mustang had to keep it for a year before reselling it, thus trying to ensure that those adopting the horses wanted to keep them.

But not enough people want to adopt mustangs. Concern over the rising numbers of horses in holding facilities and the cost of caring for them prompted Sen. Burns to sponsor his rider, which requires the BLM to sell horses over 10 years old and those that have failed three times to be adopted. Buyers can take the horses for any purpose, including slaughter.

Europeans and Asians view eating horses as no worse than eating a cow or pig. Americans, however, are squeamish about killing and consuming animals that are a beloved part of the Western landscape and history. Furthermore, advocates say it is cruel to capture animals that are as wild as deer and elk and haul them to a slaughterhouse.

“It would be kinder to kill them right there (at the roundup),” Temple said. “They have to be chased and penned and transported in trucks. The stress level for them is incredible. It’s a miracle that any of them even make it to the slaughterhouse.”

She believes there are better ways of controlling horse numbers, such as contraceptive injections that can delay reproduction in mares. The BLM is interested in the drug, but its use is not yet widespread.

Predation, mainly by mountain lions, is successful in controlling a few wildhorse herds nationwide as well, Temple said. However, that can be unpopular with ranchers.

Sussman argues that mustang populations don’t need to be artificially controlled, at least not in the foreseeable future.

“If I had a magic wand I would stop all wild-horse gathers immediately,” said Sussman. “We’ve lost 97 percent of our wildlife in the West and we have lost close to that of our wild horses. We have so few on public lands that we will never again in our lifetimes see this tremendous genetic diversity that they had.”

Experts agree that, for a mustang herd to have genetic viability, it needs 150 to 200 horses, but most herds are much smaller. The BLM tries to cope with the problem by occasionally hauling animals, usually mares, from one herd to another. Three young mares brought in to the Spring Creek herd were quickly picked up by stallions, Ball said.

He said it’s the only way to keep herds from being inbred. “We will never have the forage capacity in that acreage to have anywhere near 150 horses,” he said.

Sussman, however, maintains that wild horses have high reproduction rates precisely because their numbers are so small. If allowed to rebound, they would slow their breeding, she said.

“In 1980 the fertility rate was only 10 or 12 percent. Now it’s 18 percent or so,” she said. “Any time you take massive numbers of a species away they are going to try to repopulate themselves.”

Ackley said reproductive rates do naturally decline among horses as their population grows. “I think it’s simply a function of better conditions for the horses that are out there, fewer animals competing for the forage.”

Supporters of the BLM sales program say an estimated 8,400 horses must be sold this year to open up space in holding facilities. U.S. Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.) said the horses to be sold are inferior.

“These are not the horses you envision as Black Beauty,” he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “If they were, they wouldn’t have a hard time being adopted. These are horses weakened, deformed genetically.”

But mustang advocates disagree.

“That is so far from the truth,” Sussman said. “When I have to euthanize a wild horse, I have to use double the strength (of the drug). Does that tell you anything about their fitness?”

Temple and Sussman both say wild horses are superior to domestic horses in every way. Roaming some 17 miles a day, eating a variety of shrubs and grasses, interacting with other herd members, they are well-conditioned physically and mentally.

Researchers studying mustangs have found their hooves are better adapted than domestic horses’, they suffer less from parasites, and they have fewer digestive problems because of their high-fiber diet.

Ackley himself adopted an orphaned foal and leased another mustang for years, an animal he called “a good allaround horse.”

Ackley said most of Colorado’s mustangs are indeed in good shape and the BLM wants to keep them that way by not overcrowding the range, which they must share. “We can’t manage wild horses in a vacuum,” he said.

A program at Cañon City allows prison inmates who weren’t convicted of abusive crimes to saddle-train mustangs. At a recent auction, one such horse was adopted for $5,800 and two others went for $3,500 each, Ackley said.

Ackley said if the BLM sales program continues as allowed by the Burns rider, the agency in Colorado would probably try to leave most horses that would qualify as sale-eligible out of its roundups. “Most of those 11-and-older animals would be turned back,” he said. Ball is confident that if there is a gather of the Spring Creek herd, most of the excess animals would be adopted. The horses, believed to be descended from U.S. Cavalry mounts turned loose in the 1800s, have Morgan and Thoroughbred blood, he said.

“We’ve got some good quality horses out there,” Ball said. “I would expect most if not all of those would be adopted.”

Unaware of the debate raging about their future, the Spring Creek herd continues to flourish in its foreboding habitat. Volunteers with the San Juan Mountains Association, led by Kathe Hayes, check on the horses periodically, as do BLM officials. The Four Corners Backcountry Horsemen do the regular censuses by horseback.

The National Mustang Association spent about $18,000 to put a catchment system and a 13,000-gallon water tank on the range to collect precious rainwater and provide the horses something other than saline creeks to drink.

Temple believes the horses would be better protected if more people could see them in the wild and appreciate their special qualities.

“Everyone should see them,” she said. “They’re a part of our heritage. Now, because we have cars, we just throw them away? I don’t think most people want that.

“These horses have a place because the public said so.”

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From June 2005.