If Congress votes in favor of President Trump’s budget proposal for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the number of free-roaming horses and burros will vastly decrease across the West. It’s an emotionally charged issue that has animal rights activists comparing wild horses to unicorns and oil, mining, and livestock companies wanting the land for their own financial gain.
Trump’s budget proposes an 11 percent cut to the BLM’s $1.1 billion budget and a reduction of 29 jobs from the Wild Horse and Burro management program. The full House Committee on Appropriations will vote on the 2018 Interior Appropriations bill on Tuesday. This bill reduces money for wild horses and burro birth control, and would allow the BLM to sell captured wild horses and burros to slaughterhouses that kill them for meat.
According to The Humane Society, the relevant budget provision “would allow the BLM to kill captured wild horses or sell them without restriction ― a change that would enable buyers to purchase wild horses on the cheap and haul them to Canada or Mexico for slaughter.”
While the bill has already been approved by the House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, there is a chance it might be amended in full committee.
The proposed change is drawing push back from many directions. Actor and director Ed Harris recently said in a statement that he is “pleading that a humane and common sense solution to the management of our wild horse population be mandated by Congress in keeping with the spirit of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.”
The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 was enacted to protect wild horses and burros from harassment or death, and to preserve the federal lands they inhabit.
Save America’s Unicorns is helping raise awareness of this issue through creative means. “We’re reimagining America’s wild horses as unicorns,” said Sasha Markova, co-creator of the campaign with Jonathan Olinger. The pair have partnered with Return to Freedom, a national 501 C3 non-profit that operates The American Wild Horse Sanctuary, which provides a safe haven to almost 400 wild horses and 29 burros.
Markova, who worked as a creative director at major advertising companies, is volunteering her talents to save the wild horses and burros. The Brit from London, who resides in Los Angeles, describes herself as an Americanophile. “Wild horses are the most iconic creatures of the American West,” she said. “Without them, an important part of America doesn’t exist.”
Markova spent time out west traveling with a Navajo tribe while working on a horse charity campaign. “Seeing wild horses run free is kind of like seeing Santa Claus, but so much better,” she said.
Ranchers don’t see it that way. “Nor do big oil or mining interests,” she added. “These horses live on public lands; ranchers want that land for cattle. The horses don’t have an economic value so they’re seen as irrelevant.”
Neda DeMayo, president of Return to Freedom, agreed, “Western lawmakers, largely Republicans, under pressure from ranchers and energy companies have long sought to remove wild horses and burros because they see them as an impediment to businesses. This, despite the fact that livestock outnumber wild horses by nearly 40 to 1, even on the very public lands set aside for wild horses.”
A bipartisan amendment to bar horse slaughter operations in the United States was introduced by Representatives Charlie Dent, R-Pa., and Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif. This amendment went before the Appropriations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives last week and it was narrowly defeated by a vote of 27 to 25. All but one Democrat on the committee voted to oppose horse slaughter in the U.S., and 26 out of 30 Republicans favored horse slaughter.
“I pity the people who don’t see the majesty of these American icons and who are numb to their suffering,” Roybal-Allard said.
Dent agreed; “The practice of horse slaughter is both inhumane and unnecessary, especially in this day and age. I join my constituents and people across the country in profound disappointment that the bipartisan amendment to promote the humane treatment of our nation’s horses failed to pass.”
“Horses are noble beasts that deserve our protection,” he added. “Allowing horse slaughter plants to open in this country would be a step backwards in our dedication to their safety.”
Most wild horse and burro advocates prefer non-lethal management methods such as birth control.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and co-chairman of the Animal Protection Caucus, noted in a public statement:
“Why the Appropriations Committee could undermine years of precedent and protection for America’s horses makes absolutely no sense. Congress has repeatedly banned inspections of horse meat processing facilities to make sure that horses are not slaughtered and consumed by people within our borders. While some members of the Appropriations Committee may think it’s their job to roll back these common-sense safeguards, there is a strong bipartisan coalition in the House and Senate who agrees with the American public that horse slaughter must end.”
Matt Bershadker, president and CEO of the ASPCA, said the proposal affects more than 45,000 horses currently held captive by the BLM as well as an estimated 59,000 mustangs who’ve lived freely and independently for generations on public lands across 10 states.
The BLM argues that there’s insufficient rangeland for the horses and burros, which necessitates their inevitable removal and slaughter. “It’s incredibly hypocritical,” Bershadker wrote in his blog. “It’s by the BLM’s own hand that these lands have been repurposed for the cattle industry and other uses, and the BLM has, for decades, been using helicopters to terrify, round up, and remove tens of thousands of wild horses and burros.”
In addition to the cruelty of rounding up, placing wild horses and burros in overcrowded pens, and slaughtering them, horse meat isn’t safe to eat because the USDA has no system in place to track a horse’s lifetime medical history.
To relieve aches and pains associated with work, competition, and companionship, horses are routinely administered bute (a type of horse aspirin) which is also a drug that’s prohibited from being given to animals destined for human consumption.
It comes down to economics, and according to Neda DeMayo, president of Return to Freedom. “Horse supporters must not be complacent,” she said. “They should call Congress and encourage lawmakers to double down on proven humane solutions—not spend tax dollars on the mass killing of healthy animals.”
A 2013 National Academy of Sciences report identified fertility control as an effective tool for managing the wild horse population while blaming BLM’s system of capture and removal for promoting population growth. An economic model published that same year in the peer-reviewed Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine found that the BLM could attain its management goals within 12 years by using fertility control.
In 2016, BLM spent $340,000 on fertility control compared to $52.49 million on capturing and warehousing horses off the range. Return to Freedom has joined with 38 wild horse advocacy rescue and humane organizations in calling on the BLM to make greater use of the humane fertility control vaccine PZP as a way to stave off its billion-dollar fiscal crisis caused by wild horse roundups in the American West.
“The BLM has been ignoring the advice of advocacy organizations, wildlife experts, and scientists who’ve warned this would happen, and now it has,” said Celeste Carlisle, biologist for Return to Freedom.
This fight has been going on since 1971, when the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was signed into law by Richard Nixon. The last U.S. horse slaughterhouse closed in 2007. However, according to the ASPCA, more than 100,000 horses from the U.S. are sent to slaughterhouses in neighboring Mexico and Canada for consumption every year.
Animal welfare activists would like to see protections extended prohibiting the sale of wild horses and burros to other countries, too.
“In the Trump administration, it seems they’ve (ranchers and big oil executives) found a friendly ear,” DeMayo said. “But this administration has a choice. This administration can be the one that solves the conflicts between ranchers and wild horses using available proven humane solutions without destroying healthy wild horses—or it can leave the stain of blood for tens of thousands of our nation’s wild horses on their legacy, an unnecessary betrayal.”