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They shoot wild horses, don't they?

There's a move afoot to send thousands of wild horses to auction, where they are likely to be bought for slaughter by horse dealers and sent to one of three foreign-owned plants in the U.S. that slaughter horses.

By Michael Markarian, an executive vice president at The Humane Society of the United States
Published January 7, 2005
from The Chicago Tribune

In the Old West, cattlemen despised wild horses, and no method was too cruel to employ in their campaign to exterminate these perceived competitors for grazing land. They poisoned the horses' watering holes, blinded the lead stallions by shooting their eyes out or simply ran them to death, up and over cliffs. They even captured wild mustangs, sewed their nostrils shut with rawhide so they could barely breathe, and returned them to their herds so they would slow down the other horses and make them much easier to capture. In 1897, the Nevada legislature even passed a law allowing any citizen to shoot a wild horse on sight.

But times have changed, and most Americans now regard horses as living icons of the West. This perception of wild horses was cemented due in large part to the work of a Nevada woman named Velma Johnston who in the 1950s witnessed a truck carrying a load of wild horses, dragging behind it a trail of blood. Johnston, who became known as "Wild Horse Annie," was instrumental in the passage of state laws protecting wild horses, culminating with the federal Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act passed by Congress in 1971.

Today, there is broad support in Congress for the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, introduced by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.); these bills collectively have 240 bipartisan cosponsors. And just last month, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution naming Dec. 13 the "National Day of the Horse."

Now-retired Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell introduced the measure, which passed unanimously, declaring that "wild and domestic horses rely on humans for adequate food, water and shelter," and that "horses are a vital part of the collective experience of the United States and deserve protection and compassion."

But the talk of "protection and compassion" for wild horses didn't amount to much practical good for the horses. On the contrary, just two days after the feel-good language was agreed upon by lawmakers, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) quietly slipped a provision into a 3,000- page omnibus spending bill that effectively guts federal protections afforded to wild horses for more than three decades and allows wild horses to be sold for slaughter. The authorizing language mandates that any excess horse or burro be sold "without limitation" to the highest bidder if the animal is more than 10 years old or has been offered unsuccessfully for adoption at least three times. There was no public discussion, no public hearing and no opportunity for consideration of this provision. It was backroom political dealing at its worst.

This means thousands of wild horses will be taken from holding facilities or off the range and sent directly to auction, where they are likely to be bought for slaughter by horse dealers and sent to one of three foreign-owned plants in the U.S. that slaughter horses for human consumption. Americans don't eat horsemeat, but there is a thriving demand for the export to France, Belgium, Italy, Japan, Holland and other countries.

Burns, who has long been hostile to animal welfare considerations, argues that there are too many wild horses in Bureau of Land Management corrals, held at taxpayers' expense because they are not being adopted, and something needs to be done. To some degree, he's right. But the answer is not at the end of the wild horse pipeline; it's at the beginning. Rather than round up thousands of wild horses from public lands and put them into a failed adoption program which has been peppered with abuses, the BLM should allow wild horses to roam freely on federal public lands and limit their relatively small populations where necessary through the application of non-lethal management techniques, such as immuno-contraception.

At the turn of the century, there were some 2 million wild horses but today there are only 36,000. When compared to the 4 million cattle grazing on our public lands at taxpayers' expense--more than 100 cows for every horse--no one can reasonably argue that wild horses are overpopulated. Less than 3 percent of the beef consumed in the U.S. is from cattle grazed on public lands, but the ranching industry, along with its allies such as Burns, has maintained its stranglehold on public lands and its insistence that wild horses need to go. In the rare case that a horse herd needs to be managed, the BLM can use humane methods such as birth control.

The rampant cruelty that Wild Horse Annie witnessed a half century ago may now be resuscitated with the anti-democratic insertion of this rider in a spending bill. As a practical matter, Burns' rider could result in thousands of wild horses sent immediately to slaughter.

Congress should quickly pass legislation correcting this tragic error, ensuring that policymakers don't cave in to the unreasonable demands of livestock operators and that wild horses remain a living part of America's western lands.

Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune