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Wild horses, or mustangs, are the descendants of horses brought over by Spanish explorers who landed in North America centuries ago. In the mid-17th century, millions of wild horses roamed the West. Today, as a result of unregulated roundups of wild horses and their sale to slaughterhouses, there are only about 50,000.
In 1971, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in order to protect this icon of the American West who was being abused, slaughtered, and disappearing quickly from the American landscape. This law gives the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) the responsibility to protect these animals. However, the BLM has been criticized for its ineffective solution to “protecting” wild horses. Instead of trying to implement an effective method of controlling birthrates, the BLM has used annual roundups as the sole means of reducing the number of wild horses, mostly to protect federal rangeland for private ranchers who want it to graze their cattle. This is despite the lack of both interested adopters and space to keep these animals once they are removed from their rangeland.
Millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on roundups and feeding wild horses who are in holding facilities–and the cost is growing. Conversely, only a fraction of that amount of money is spent on researching effective fertility control and protecting wild horses while still on the range. The horses who are removed from the range are simply replaced by increasing numbers of cattle, negating any argued environmental benefits.
The wild horse population continues to dwindle and land that is legally allocated to preserving and protecting wild horses is shrinking by being given over to cattle ranchers. Numerous studies have demonstrated that the BLM has consistently set aside more land for private livestock and game animals in areas that were legally designated for wild horses, leading to greater reduction of wild horse populations, even in some areas to the point of eradication.
Roundups, or “gathers” as the BLM likes to call them, have been criticized by countless animal advocacy and wildlife organizations as incredibly inhumane. Low-flying helicopters chase panicking herds of horses for miles to traps, which often results in injury or death, especially to foals, sick, elderly and pregnant mares who simply cannot keep up with the rest of the herd. Year after year, the impassioned debate between Americans who want to preserve and protect wild horses and the ranchers and farmers who are fighting for greater use of public lands for grazing is costing horses their lives and American taxpayers wasted resources.
Since 2004, Congress has passed an amendment that allows the BLM to sell thousands of wild horses who are too old or otherwise designated as unadoptable for $10 per horse without any restrictions, even for slaughter, in order to make more space for future roundups. Despite the BLM’s statements that it does not knowingly auction off horses for adoption to those who would sell them for slaughter, it was revealed in 2012 that the Bureau had sold almost 2,000 horses to a known horse slaughterer, and had been doing so since 2009, under the guise of his position as a third-party adoption coordinator. The BLM has refused to further investigate the situation. As wild horse populations dwindle and inhumane roundups continue, the icon of the American West will continue to suffer at the hands of incompetence.