Wild Horses Running Out

Every Wednesday, a group of protesters gathers on old Highway 395 in front of the Nevada state Capitol in Carson City to draw attention to the plight of wild horses. They carry signs such as "Goodbye Spirit of the West" and "As It Should Be, Wild Horses Running Free." They've been at it since February, when the latest in a series of stealth roundups sponsored by the government sent them to the streets. Every week, traffic slows and horns honk in agreement in the state that has the largest number of free-roaming wild horses in the West. But the question remains: Can the wild horse, pressed into service to blaze our trails and carry us into battle, survive the Bush administration?

The war against the wild horse and the federal law that protects it is being waged by cattlemen and ranchers, lone nuts and sagebrush rebels with a copy of the 2nd Amendment tucked in their back pockets. In one way or another, the war is officially backed by government agencies such as the federal Bureau of Land Management and the Nevada Department of Agriculture, by bureaucrats and small-town officials who in essence are stealing wild horses from public lands.

Many ranchers see wild horses as pests that destroy the land and take food from cattle, although study after study indicates that cattle do more damage to the range than horses. And then there are people who like to go out in the desert and shoot wild horses, sometimes by the dozens. Usually they get away with it because all they did was waste a few "varmints."

Meanwhile, our ranch-owning, cowboy-booted president is no friend to the horse he rode in on. "The Bush administration's policy toward the wild horse is the worst I've seen," said Betty Lee Kelly, a founder of a Nevada horse sanctuary called Wild Horse Spirit who has been fighting to preserve mustangs through three administrations.

Under a myriad of "management" schemes, the law meant to protect the horses has been all but ignored in favor of policies dictated primarily by the ranching industry. Some time ago, the Bureau of Land Management established "herd management areas" and "appropriate management levels" aimed at removing more and more horses from the range. Periodically, the BLM enforces its policy of "zeroing out" horses, sometimes by herding them into artificially created roaming areas with little forage, forcing them to wander onto private ranchland for food -- at which point they are officially deemed outlaws and subject to removal.

Under the Bush regime, the BLM's wild-horse removal policy has escalated ferociously. It's difficult to count wild horses, and BLM population figures are far higher than those of horse advocates. But even using the BLM's numbers, the herds are dwindling quickly. In Nevada in 2000, there were an estimated 25,096 wild horses and burros; in 2003, 17,930. So far this year, 1,400 wild horses and burros have been removed from Nevada public land, with the goal, pending the release of funds, of removing a total of 5,500. An additional 5,000 are slated to go by 2005. Mustang advocates fear that if the government even comes close to these figures, the bands that roam the range will no longer have the numbers to sustain themselves.

In addition, these tax-subsidized roundups are often waged by helicopter, a cruel practice given that horses are prey animals and could instinctively run themselves to the point of injury, if not death. Those that survive are funneled into a murky future via the BLM's seemingly cute adopt-a-horse program, which for $125 offers ownership of "a living legend" -- respect granted in language only.

According to the agency, only about 200 horses in Nevada have been adopted via this program since 2000. That means thousands of horses languish in captivity, while roundups continue. What will be the fate of these horses? Some are released back into the wilderness. Some are purchased by nonprofit sanctuaries that treat them well. Some slip through the system and most likely end up at slaughterhouses. The majority are kept in holding facilities by private contractors paid up to $3.46 per day per horse. "There are people who stand to make big profits from horse removal," said Kelly.

Lately, there is talk of privatizing the system, with one rancher floating the idea of "repatriating" 10,000 wild horses to a "sanctuary" in Mexico -- another move that could wipe the steed from the American stage.

In the old days, horse thieves were lynched; now they're running the government. When President Bush was governor of Texas, the centerpiece of his office was a famous Western painting called "A Charge to Keep." It portrayed Methodist circuit riders on mustangs, delivering the word of God. Bush reportedly sent a memo to staffers, reminding them of the messengers on horseback. "That's us," he proclaimed. Ironically, the horses that once roamed the West by the millions, that gave us our country and our myths, may not survive the famous cowboy from Crawford, Texas.

This story originally appeared in the L.A. Times.

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