Emmer column: Wild horses, feral policy
May 15, 2018
Wild mustangs are a problem. A fascinating problem. Even captivating.
Just hearing those half-ton, hide-wrapped packages of muscle and bone snort and stomp as they toss their heads can knock your hat in the creek. It is hearty pleasure to visit the wild horse herds close by.
Most of the wild horses' ancestors were turned loose during the Dust Bowl as ranchers went hungry, went bust, then just went. Life in the wild is unforgiving, but the horses reproduce easily. Herds double in size every five years or so, fast enough to damage the range.
So, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) takes thousands of surplus horses off the range every year. Still, the agency figures there are nearly three times more horses left on the range than it can sustain. Corrals and rented pastures are now home to 70,000 wild horses removed from the open range.
These horses are hard to train for riding. It is difficult for private citizens to justify owning them, except as living souvenirs.
Though they don't know and don't care, the wild horses are rock stars. They have dedicated and vocal human fans. The BLM could sell the surplus horses for dog food. Or, it could euthanize them as people routinely do to millions of cattle, hogs and chickens.
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It's also possible hunting could be allowed as a substitute for natural predation, like elk, deer and boars.
However, the wild horse fans object noisily to disposing of the extra horses. They lobby for more humane treatment. The BLM bowed to the activists and now keep the extra horses permanently as guests. It even defied its own Wild Horse Advisory Board of citizen experts to do so.
They have more food, water and health care than the free roaming horses. They gain weight. The BLM castrates all the stallions and then separates the sexes permanently for good measure. It's less freedom, but easier living than life in the wild. More humane? Ask the horses.
The BLM spends $48,000 over the life of each of those surplus mustangs. That's two-thirds of the BLM's whole wild horse budget.
For their taxes, the wild horse fans get every public service all other taxpayers get with the extra horses tossed in for free.
Maintaining surplus wild horses is a romantic gesture. If the policy has practical value for society, it is not obvious. Unavoidably, it siphons resources away from helping poor people or reducing pollution or curing cancer.
Unusual for policy issues, this one is untainted by childish partisanship and big money interests. Yethow can something with such a simple solution be such an unsolvable problem?
If public bodies cannot make small, easy decisions, it is no wonder they are incapable of making bigger, more arguable spending decisions. No wonder the public debt is headed for Mars.
Perhaps a peek at the groups involved will help.
Wild horse activists are narrowly focused on the mustangs. That's fine. They have successfully wrangled the cost of the surplus horses onto the general citizenry without public agreement. That's not so fine, but if our system relies on humans to be angels to work properly, we will be forever disappointed.
Should not the BLM guard the public cookie jar? Scholars have long noted bureaucracies are not simply butlers to the public interest. They want their own slice of glory; more turf, bigger budgets, larger staffs. Adding the lifetime care of surplus mustangs to their job serves that goal.
Although the BLM's own citizen Wild Horse Advisory Board recommended selling the surplus horses or euthanizing them, the BLM sided with the horse advocates instead. Supporting captured wild horses grows its budget.
So, no, according to this line of thought, public agencies like the taste of cookies, too.
Politicians seem to prefer happy, ignorant voters over informed, concerned voters. So they quietly add the invoice for the surplus horses to the debt of under-aged citizens.
So it is down to us, the general citizenry. We are the last line of defense of the collective interest.
Most of us would love nothing more than a public budget that serves the common good effectively and indisputably. Unlimited pensions for extra wild horses is a questionable expense for a limited budget.
The individual citizens who actually pay for everything should control where their tax money goes.
The decision changes from the authoritarians that declare, "You're going to pay for surplus wild horses because we say so," to the citizen who thinks, "I can pay for surplus mustangs, or for education for kids in Harlem, or space missions, or something else, or a mix of programs."
Special interests focus on, "What do we want?" The general interest asks, "What do we want more?"
Let's cowboy up for more democracy. It's not a finished product.
Vince Emmer is a financial analyst in Gypsum. He runs Citizens Due Diligence after hours. Reach him at email@example.com.