Randy Helm is a horse whisperer who teaches inmates at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence how to tame wild horses. Through the process of training wild mustangs, the inmates learn that they too can live another way.
Wild horse advocates fear President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would lead to the slaughter of thousands of wild horses living both in government captivity and on the public range.
Lawmakers would have to agree, though, and Congress has a recent history of opposing even some roundups.
The Interior Department budget request seeks to trim $10 million from the Bureau of Land Management horse-control fund by lifting a restriction on selling horses and burros for slaughter. Currently the agency cares for or leases roughly 46,000 animals that it has rounded up to protect rangelands from overpopulation.
An estimated 73,000 horses and burros live on federal lands that range managers have decided ideally should support fewer than 27,000. Some 6,600 of those animals, mostly burros, live in Arizona. The herds grew by 8 percent last year.
The president’s proposal seeks to cut into an $80 million horse-management budget by loosening the requirements for selling formerly free-roaming animals. Horse advocates worry that if Congress backtracks on its longstanding protections, it could mean selling off thousands of horses from both the captive and wild populations.
“It would be a disaster,” said Ginger Kathrens, a wild horse documentarian and founder of the horse advocacy group the Cloud Foundation. “Hopefully the outcry from the American public will be such that they will not approve such a cruel proposal.”
Public support for wild horses is widespread, which partly explains the fact that Congress annually includes budget language prohibiting slaughter.
Last year, the BLM appointed Kathrens to an advisory board where she dissented from a majority opinion advocating euthanasia of captive horses to allow for more roundups. Public reaction was loud, and the BLM director at the time immediately said he did not intend to kill horses.
In response to this year’s budget request, the BLM issued a statement saying its “goal is always to find good homes” for horses gathered from the range, but that new tools can help “reverse the declining health of our nation’s wild horse and burro herds and manage the public lands on which they and so many other species depend.”
Congress mandated wild horse protection in a 1971 law, but also called for management to preserve an ecological balance that has been difficult to reach or even define among factions ever since. The herds have grown by as much as a fifth in some years as Americans have adopted fewer of the horses that BLM rounds up.
Ranchers’ livestock sometimes compete with the horses for forage, and cattle associations have long sought reductions on the range.
“The original intent of the act was to make sure those animals had a healthy presence on the range, but also that they be kept at a number that is sustainable,” Ethan Lane of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association told the Associated Press. “You have horses starving to death … and irreversible damage to Western rangelands.”
Laura Leigh, a Wild Horse Education advocate who pushes the BLM to reduce reproduction through contraception, called the budget plan “lazy government.”
“If your legislators won’t listen,” she said Thursday, “get active in the midterm election and take away their chairs,”
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