Just as I was incredibly naive when I started down the equine slaughter rabbit hole, I was equally naive about the BLM Mustang mismanagement mess. I have lived for over 6 decades, and I understand that counting on the government to get everything right is very foolish thinking. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist either… I don’t automatically assume that the government is corrupt and attempting to screw things up wherever possible. Of course, I didn’t think that the veterinary profession, tasked with looking out for the best interests of animals, was as culpable as they are in turning a blind eye to horse slaughter.
My husband and I visited one of the BLM holding facilities about 18 months ago. I wrote about it in a post titled Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary. I have to be brutally honest, transparent, and repentent. When I wrote that post, I didn’t get it. I did my usual form of research and much of what popped up was BLM Mustang rhetoric. While I did acknowledge the high density of horses on a single pasture, I believed the explanation that pastures were being reworked. Perhaps they were… but the reality is that the life of those geldings was dramatically different than it had been when they were wild.
The slaughter horse series leads to more people to interview
I have spent weeks writing my series on equine slaughter, and more than once I have mentioned that Mustangs are finding their way into the slaughter/auction nightmare. As I have interviewed “those in the know” about the slaughter pipeline, I have connected with several individuals who have done a deep dive into the plight of the wild horses.
Cynthia Smoot, an Emmy-award-winning journalist
One of my first interviews was with Cynthia Smoot, an Emmy-award-winning journalist who recently retired after 25 years at WTVT-TV, FOX 13 in Tampa, Florida. Before Cynthia joined Fox TV in Tampa, she was in North Carolina where she received numerous community awards for her involvement in foster care, adoption, and woman’s issues. After relocating to Florida, Cynthia’s “beat” became animal welfare issues and the natural world. Cynthia was always interested in horses. This article about Cynthia’s retirement at the end of 2022 states:
In 1998, Cynthia received a prestigious Emmy Award for “A Real Life Horse Whisperer,” the story of Monty Roberts, who helped revolutionize horse training with his non-violent methods.Fox 13 News
Similar to many “horsey gals,” Cynthia has loved horses since she was a child. Her first horse was named “Bucky” and he lived to the incredible age of 36 years old. However, she didn’t get her first Mustang until she was 40. She shared with me how she became involved in the fight to preserve the right of wild horses to roam public lands:
My passion for wild horses was ignited by Ginger Kathrens brilliant PBS documentary, “Cloud, Wild Stallion of the Rockies.” That was the early 2000’s. As I began to explore the issue in depth, I realized that America’s mustangs were, and still are, under siege—scapegoats for a broken and antiquated public lands use policy. I eventually had the good fortune to meet Ginger and travel to see the wild horses of the Pryor Mountains.
That was a seminal moment for me, as I gazed upon the “herd,” and realized these are wild horse families: the stallion, his mates, this year and last year’s foals…the bachelor stallions rough-housing, as teenage boys do! Every time the helicopter flies, those families are fractured and lost forever. Foals lose their mothers. Stallions lose their mares. Also lost is the wisdom of the lead mares—where to find water when their entire world is frozen at 30 below. Where to find shelter when summer thunderstorms and lightning strike.Cynthia Smoot
Cynthia shared some insider insight into the media world that confirmed how easily the public, including myself, are conned into believing the BLM mustang misinformation campaign. Apparently, the BLM is quite adept at blanketing the country with copious emails sent to major news organizations and outlets. Similar to every other business and enterprise these days, media companies in general are operating with fewer resources and people. It is impossible to fact-check everything that they receive. If it is from an organization as large and “connected” as the BLM, surely it is factual, right? Wrong.
Sometimes, the BLM even contradicts something else they said in a previous release. For instance, the most-used explanation for why the wild horses need to be removed or their numbers drastically diminished, according to the BLM, is because “they are destroying the range.” However, if you know where to dig you can find BLM publications that state that livestock are the number one issue for range degradation, and horses fall way down the list.
There is an organization called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER. Apparently, they did one of the deepest dives into the BLM’s own cache of publications. Although it was rather complicated and convoluted, they were able to document numerous discrepancies in the policies put forth by the BLM.
Erik Molvar, Executive Director of the Western Watersheds Project
Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and a contributing writer to The Hill, a Washington-based policy news outlet. I had a very informative phone conversation with Erik. He hastened to clarify that he is peripherally involved in the Mustang dilemma. His area of expertise relates to use of lands for domestic grazing.
Remember how I just said that the BLM decries the damage that horses supposedly do to the rangeland? Erik, a wildlife biologist, is in a far better position to understand the real impact on the ecosystem. He shared his expertise with me and helped me to understand a much bigger picture. What follows is a synopsis of the extensive notes I took during our conversation, most of which is in Erik’s own words.
Erik says you can’t talk about wild horses without talking about cattle (and probably sheep as well.) At the time of Lewis & Clark (the early 1800s, for those of you historically challenged as I am) there were somewhere between 2-7 million wild horses. The ecosystems were in balance and there was pristine biodiversity and wildlife. It has been deteriorating from that point forward. Today, there are approximately 67,000 horses.
At one point in time, there were 380,000 wolves. Currently, the population has dwindled to a couple of thousand. The cattle industry has driven their extermination. Whereas there used to be 10 million elk, we are now down to 1 million.
To say that wild horses are causing a major problem for wildlife is missing the lion’s share of the impact. White colonization is the reason, and the real problem is cows.Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist
Let’s examine the percentage of BLM land grazed by horses versus livestock. The percentages include BLM land in Alaska, which is land that isn’t grazed by either cattle or horses. Keep that in mind as you interpret the percentages… Wild horses occupy 11% of BLM land, whereas cattle occupy 56.5%! Forest service land allocates 1.3% for horses and 38.4% for cattle. When BLM “grazing allotments” are determined, 50-65% is allocated for cattle. The wild horses, elk, deer, rabbits, mice, and other wildlife get what is left.
Cattle grazing versus wild horse grazing
More information from Erik… Cattle graze differently than wild horses. Erik says that cattle in the arid west are “ecological misfits.” They want and need lush green pastures. Cattle gravitate to the areas around springs and washes, which mean they concentrate their impact along water sources. Cattle stay within 2 miles of a water source. Each stream is a biodiversity oasis, and that delicate balance is significantly negatively impacted by cattle.
Horses, on the other hand, can range up to 20 miles away from water. They graze more like bison and spread their impact more broadly. They are biologically more suited to consuming the desert forage.
The economics make no sense
It was interesting timing to turn on 60 Minutes as I was writing this blog and watch a segment on the wild horse issue. On March 12, 2023, the full episode was called “Tales of our Four-Legged Friends.” I can’t link directly to that episode, but you can go here to find it. Not surprisingly, it was largely presented from the BLM point of view. There was even a segment specifically about Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary, which is the facility that Alan and I visited 18 months ago. In that segment, a BLM spokeswoman said that two-thirds of their government funding goes towards supporting wild horses off the range.
Cattle ranchers pay the government $1.35 per cow/calf pair, per month to graze on government lands. Guess how much money the Wind River Sanctuary gets for each of its 225 horses? The government pays $60/month for each horse! Well, gee, I am not a mathematician, but it isn’t hard for me to understand how two-thirds of the budget is going to support horses that would fare far better if allowed to graze on land that was supposedly set aside for that very purpose. Erik pointed out the fallacy of stopping the horses from eating inexpensive grass and putting them where they consume expensive grass.
The remaining one-third of the BLM budget is consumed in the helicopter round-ups that destroy horse families as described by Cynthia Smoot. Would the public tolerate this practice if they were rounding up elk? Of course not! So why is it happening to the horses?
In my next installment, I will talk about “AMLs” or “Appropriate Management Levels.” How does the BLM determine AMLs? I will also share Erik’s response to my question, What can we do? Additionally, I will describe what some call “The Path Forward” but others label as “The Path to Extinction.” I will “see” you next week!