WASHINGTON – Activists gathered Thursday to protest government actions they say could lead to the extinction of wild horses in the West. The government says its policies are aimed at saving the horses and preserving the environment.
The Cloud Foundation organized the protest of wild horse roundups on public land,most recently the Calico Roundup earlier this week in Nevada,where the Bureau of Land Management removed 1,922 horses,leaving about 600.
The BLM controls the ranges where an estimated 37,000 wild horses live,BLM spokesman Tom Gorey said. But that is about 10,300 more than the land can support. He said the agency has been moving horses into short-term holding corrals and long-term pastures. About 36,000 horses and burros have been removed from ranges in recent years,he said.
“The horse herds grow at about 20 percent,and that means they can double in size every four years,” Gorey said.
But activists insist that the roundups have to stop. Wildlife ecologist Craig Downer said horses are better for the environment than livestock,such as cattle,which eat the grass down to the root.
He said horses and burros distribute themselves over an area,which reduces overgrazing.
The animals' different digestive systems also have an impact on the range – seeds remaining in horse manure can germinate,but seeds in cow manure can't.
Gorey said that grazing has decreased 30 percent since Congress passed the Free-Roaming Wild Horses and Burro Act in 1971,which gave the BLM authority over wild horses and the land they roamed. He said when the BLM removes horses it's not to allow for more cattle,but to counter overpopulation.
“Our range conservationists and our wild horse and burros specialists and wildlife biologists look at the condition of the land and its sustainability,” he said. “We can determine pretty well within a certain range whether the area is overpopulated,and that's the reason for removals.”
Cloud Foundation member Lisa Friday said the government is removing horses because ranchers pay to graze cattle on public lands,but the government gets no money for wild horses on the same land. She said she has adopted one of the mustangs rounded up by the government.
“The Bureau of Land Management is trying to get rid of them all,” she said. “We're very concerned about the fate of those rounded up as well as those that haven't been rounded up.”
The BLM said wild horse adoptions have gone down from 5,700 in 2005 to 3,500 last year.
Kathy Luedtke,executive director of the Horse Coalition in Missoula,Montana,said the government is spending too much money to keep the horses in pens and rounding up more horses will only make it worse.
“We need financial accountability to the money that they're spending of our federal tax dollars,” she said. She said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar needs to review the agency's plan and budget,which essentially creates a zoo of wild horses.
The proposed 2011 budget includes $75.7 million for the wild horse and burro program,a $12 million increase from this year. About half of that sum pays the upkeep for horses in holding corrals.
Another $42.5 million would go to land acquisition for wild horse preserves in the East or Midwest. Gorey said land acquisition would require legislative changes because the 1971 act allows horses only on land they were occupying at the time the law was enacted.