A horse of a different color

A horse of a different color

The animated movie, “Spirit: The Stallion of the Cimarron,” has entertained a generation of children. It is the story of a courageous wild horse that gets captured by the Cavalry, then by an Indian, and later by a nasty railroad — all of whom fail to tame him.

Such wild horse stories have been popular with audiences for decades, including classics like “The Black Stallion,” “Wild Horse Mesa,” “My Friend Flicka,” and dozens of others. The image of the wild and independent mustang is emotionally powerful.

Americans love the idea of the wild horses, more than we love the animals themselves. That’s why wild horses in the West are among the most controversial issues perennially facing the BLM. There are at least 70,000 horses running wild in the West, and 50,000 more in BLM holding pens. The agency spends upwards of $87 million annually trying to manage wild horses, but it is a losing battle. The number of horses doubles every four years, and the BLM cannot even give them away. They round up 3,000 or more every year to reduce herd size, but only a fraction of those are ever adopted (111 last year) and many are euthanized or sold to rendering plants.

If that last detail sounds unsettling, hold your horses for a minute. The problem with these herds of wild horses is that they decimate rangeland ecosystems that are also vital to native wildlife, particularly deer and elk. In some places, grazing cattle also compete for the same forage, but in several areas where cattle were removed from the range a decade ago, the landscape remains barren because of the horses. The latter are often desperately hungry and eat anything left. Many starve to death every year, so the situation is unsustainable, for the environment and especially for the horses. A National Wild Horse & Burro Advisory Board helps determine the land’s “carrying capacity,” and the number of horses that should be culled annually. Some members consider the situation an emergency.

The 1971 law governing BLM’s wild horse management allows removal of excess horses from the range, selling them at cost, and euthanizing aging or sick horses. At a recent meeting of the advisory board, a strong recommendation to do exactly those things shocked and horrified some observers, and greatly relieved others.

Almost immediately, as reported in Range Magazine, “horse activists implemented their public relations machine, social media lit on fire, emails flew through the ether, and all hope of saving public lands, the fragile ecosystems, the customs of multiple use, economies, and private property rights disintegrated behind cries to ‘save the horses.’ ” Such emotion is misplaced.

The term “wild horse” is a misunderstanding. They are more accurately understood as escaped horses. The tradition is that they descended from horses that escaped…

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