Whither wild horses
Last week, 167 mustangs were rounded up from the West Douglas Herd Area, south of Rangely, and taken to the Bureau of Land Management’s short-term holding facility in Cañon City.
I watched part of it. It was painful. Two horses died. One was a stallion whose neck was broken from being trampled by another horse in the trailer. The other was a 3-month old foal whose leg broke after being separated from its mother and chased too far by a helicopter and a cowboy on horseback. According to the APHIS vet report, it was euthanized. BLM public information officer Chris Joyner told observers that the agency doesn’t use drugs to put down a wild horse in a case like this because if it’s buried and another wild animal eats the carcass, that animal could die too. That means the tiny horse was shot. It was a senseless death.
When the White River Field Office (WRFO) first announced its plans in January to round up the West Douglas horses for good, I wrote in my column that “the WRFO will approve the gather; the advocates will sue to keep the horses on the range. The cattlemen will counter-sue, and the whole legal battle will commence once more.” My prediction was half wrong. There was a lawsuit alright. Two, in fact, from wild horse advocates. One has yet to be settled. But, no ranchers brought a countersuit. The DC District Court ruled in favor of the BLM, and the agency got the green light to begin its campaign to zero-out the herd.
The issue of what to do with the nation’s wild horses continues to be extremely polarized. Some still consider these proud ponies as range vermin, akin to rattlesnakes and wolves, something to be exterminated on sight. Others say all mustangs should run wild and free. These viewpoints are extreme.
Then, there’s the BLM, the agency in charge of managing most wild horses, which after 44 years should have come up with some kind of middle ground. But, despite its claims to be studying new ways to manage the horses, the BLM continues to use “mustanging” as its primary management tool, taking federally protected horses off the range and putting most of them on taxpayer-funded pastures, costing millions of dollars a year. Not to mention the cost of helicopter roundups at hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But, there is one guy who is making hay out of horse-puckie. His name is Ben Masters. He’s written a book and put together a film called “Unbranded” about his trip with three buddies and 16 mustangs across 3,000 miles of the American West.
Masters doesn’t chew on the ranchers, the advocates, the BLM or the legal battles. He gets right to the point: Mustangs are fabulous animals and a living link to the history of the West.
“Each herd is unique,” he writes. “But all herds have survived a spectrum of serious selection criteria: voyaging to the Americas, riding into battle, taking settlers across the plains, and pulling plows across the prairies.”
As he presents his case from the back of a mustang across thousands of acres of breathtaking public lands, he makes clear the importance of these maligned animals. “Hundreds of years of natural selection, of braving extreme heat and cold, and of battling for breeding rights have resulted in animals that survive on meager rations and are resilient, tough footed, surefooted, [and] intelligent…”
Granted, Masters’ trip from Mexico to Canada would not have happened had he not been able to adopt wild horses from the BLM. But, he writes that the current policy of “roundups, stockpiling horses in pens, and paying for expensive pasture leases” is unsustainable.
He acknowledges that the BLM is tasked with multiple-use management of certain public lands, including wild horse range, and that his trip has driven home the importance of resource conservation. He does not present a solution to the wild horse dilemma; he simply lets the horses speak for themselves.
The West Douglas horses are tough and resilient too. Generations of that herd survived in harsh, dry, mountainous terrain. They served the Utes and local ranchers well back in the day. But not once in over 40 years since the BLM made an administrative decision to remove the West Douglas mustangs did the agency try to sit down with local stakeholders — ranchers, advocates, the local soil conservation districts, or local chambers of commerce — to look at the benefits of the herd and hammer out a reasonable solution for everyone, including the horses.
It may be too late for those West Douglas horses headed to holding, but I say for the rest, it’s time to sit down and talk.
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