There is dependable evidence that the modern-day horse evolved fifty million years ago from a small dog-like animal called Eohippus. Eventually this creature came to thrive on the North American continent and was traced to the Tennessee Valley where it eventually advanced into a separate species called Equus. However, this species vanished into Asia and Africa 11 to 13 thousand years ago, returning to American soil early in the 1500s. These horses first appeared with Spanish explorers, but some escaped into the interior where they transformed to a wild state.
The animals were quite successful and by the 19th century they numbered over 2 million. However, wild horses didn’t receive federal protect
ion until 1971 when only 17,000 remained to roam the American plains. World War I took out a million for basic combat purposes and the rest were hunted for sport or for meat to provide chicken feed and dog food. The hunting was without limits, as these animals were pursued by helicopter and sprayed with bullets, run down by motorized vehicles, run off of cliffs, gunned down, shot in corralled captivity and buried in mass graves.
The wild horses had much in common with the bison and were literally driven to the edge of extinction. Finally, in 1959 the use of motorized vehicles and aircraft was banned when it came to attacking the wild ones. In fact, in 1971 the outcry to end the carnage was finally heard in the American Congress and it came to be that more letters poured in about the wild horse than any other non-war issue in U.S. history. It was December of 1971 when President Nixon signed the Wild Free Roaming Horse & Burro Act into law. This was designed to protect such creatures, declaring: “Wild horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West…”
Remembering the adage “What is useful is used, what is not is destroyed,” the pioneers of these beliefs marched forward. The mustang, or “stray beast” born from the Spanish word mestengo gained a significant cut of the land. The wild horse
s and burros received 303 herd areas that included 47 million acres of public land. Consequently, wild horse numbers grew from the original 17,000 to over 42,000, which stirred up significant wrath from the ranchers. Finally, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service were engaged to enforce the 1971 Act. Nonetheless, it remains a sad situation, for until this day there is little commercial need for actual horse-provided horsepower. Over the years the areas have shrunk to 201 Herd Management Areas on less than 35 million acres.
In 1976 the BLM amended the 1971 Act and the use of motorized vehicles and aircraft such as helicopters, were once again used to control the numbers. From there the rules and the land remained split between the BLM and the Forest Service. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was not allowed to use such means, but the BLM still has the power to use motorized vehicles to capture wild horses, but not to kill them. Fish and Wildlife Service can kill horses, but cannot use motorized vehicles to catch them. Nonetheless, in 1993 it was estimated that there were 24,000 wild horses living in Nevada. Angry activists spent time counting the horses
by air, but only discovered 8,300 free-roaming horses. Too, author of Dances with Wolves, Michael Blake told the press that the government was killing horses when and where they pleased. He continued to state the horses were killed in the dark of night and sent to the slaughterhouse floor where their throats were cut for money.
In 2001 the BLM annual wild horse budget was increased to $29 million to enable an aggressive removal program. Twenty-four thousand horses were up for capture. Today the most recent figures estimate the wild horse population to be somewhere around 33,000 individuals, with about half of that number found in Nevada. Many of these creatur
es are in holding facilities such as the Palomino Valley in Nevada and Susanville in northern California. In addition, private ranchers in Oklahoma and Kansas manage other holding facilities that can maintain 2,000 to 3,500 horses each. In 2010, after an increase in budget to rid the plains of these animals, the BLM received another increase, now costing the taxpayer $64 million a year to continue to round up thousands more wild horses.
But the question remains: Why is there such an effort to rid our public lands of wild horses? For many the wild horse isn’t a wild animal at all. The livestock lobby, government agencies, and wildlife protection organizations consider this animal to be a domesticated species gone feral. It is argued that these horses are not native to America, but instead an exotic. Therefore, it competes for food with the elk and pronghorn antelope as well as decimating rangeland normally used to raise cattle.
The fate of these horses remains dark. However, abusing, neglecting, and abandoning an equine or any other animal remains against the law. Officials are tuned in and are committed to enforcing these cruelty laws. The Special Task Force on Animal Cruelty formed in Rensselaer County, New York is proof that the laws can be enforced and abusers
can be found and brought to justice. In fact, in the state of New York Skye’s Amendment, named for a mare who died from being stabbed 18 times with a butcher knife, makes it a felony to abuse any animal within the state.
Unfortunately, the BLM has pretty much failed in its handling of these animals. It’s difficult to gain the attention of the Interior Secretary where littl
e interest or understanding of these issues is present. Recently efforts to resurrect plans to round up and spay wild mares in White Mountain, Wyoming were announced. Spaying is a gamble and rarely done even with domestic mares. When it is performed the procedure takes place in a sterile hospital with a month set aside for recovery. Doing such in a surgical field is extremely susceptible to infection, often resulting in death. On the positive side, the BLM created the Adopt A Horse program in 1976. Since then more than 200,000 horses and burros have been rounded up off public lands. One can easily adopt a wild horse for as little as $125 a head. The cost to the taxpayer for government removal of one horse is more than tenfold that amount.
It has been said that no animal in human history has had as much impact as the horse. As said, wars have taken the lives of millions. They are used for transport for humans along with their belongings. They have been ridden or driven across continents to deliver mail to meld our communities. They have plowed the fields to furnish us with food. Today many consider this mighty animal to be an entertainer, an athlete, and even a friend. But altho
ugh the 1971 Act stated “It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death,” it has been the very agencies empowered to protect these icons that have committed some of the worst atrocities against them.