Originally published July 2008
In 2004, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) authored an amendment to the 2005 Omnibus Appropriations Bill — known as the Burns rider — that “gutted a 34-year-old ban on selling wild horses and burros for slaughter.” This one-page rider — No. 142 — was part of a 3,300 page bill. There were no hearings or debate on this amendment, submitted on the eve of the vote, that turned the 1971 enabling legislation on its head.
Welcome to how your Congress makes law.
At the time, Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY) said:
The thing that is so damaging about this Conrad Burns amendment is that he passed it on an appropriations bill that no one knew about.… It is precisely the way the legislative process should not work. I don’t know his motivations, but more than likely he was protecting the ranchers who have leased those lands [for cattle and sheep grazing].
In 2005, the Rahall/Whitfield Wild Horse Amendment would have repudiated the Burns rider and reaffirmed the prohibition on BLM selling protected wild horses and burros for slaughter. It passed the House but was blocked in the Senate by the appropriations subcommittee for the Department of the Interior … chaired by then-Sen. Burns. Subsequently, Rep. Rahall (D-WV) and Rep. Whitfield introduced the amendment in 2007 as H.R. 249. Demonstrating once again there may be little difference in a Democratic and Republican Congress, it has not moved out of committee.
Critics of the 30 June announcement insist that the overpopulation in holding pens is self-inflicted: in 2001, BLM increased its capture budget by 50% “with no long-term plan” for what to do with the additional animals. Moreover, BLM is keeping herd size below recommended levels for genetic diversity. Only about one quarter of the herds under active management have a BLM stated population objective of more than 150 animals; the scientific recommendation is 150-200.
BLM has published an online form to take feedback on the proposal. Here’s my feedback:
I am opposed to the proposal to kill horses and burros in captivity. I support managing the wild horse and burro populations in accordance with scientific recommendations for genetic diversity: that is, in herd sizes of approximately 200. I support raising the cattle (commercial livestock) grazing fee for 2009, at a minimum, to a number that reflects inflation, which would be approximately $2.60 AUM for 2008 instead of $1.35.
BLM is charged with managing the “removal and disposal of excess wild free-roaming horses and burros which pose a threat to themselves and their habitat.” Currently, BLM estimates it has rounded up more than 30,000 wild horses and burros — animals that it has to feed and shelter. Rising feed costs — in part the result of Bush Administration policy on biofuels — are the justification.
Congress passed — and President Nixon signed — the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971, directing the BLM to protect, manage and control wild horses and burros. The lawstemmed from efforts in the 1950s by Velma B. Johnston (“Wild Horse Annie”) to stop “ruthless and indiscriminate manner” harvesting. In other words, they were rounded up and slaughtered for dog food.
The law’s preamble (pdf) prohibits BLM from facilitating the death of these animals:
Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.
In 2006, BLM reported about 31,000 wild horses in five states: 13,384 in Nevada; 4,615 in Wyoming; 3,166 in California; 2,545 in Utah; and 2,113 in Oregon. The wild horse and burro numbers are insignificant in the overall data: the consensus in 2005 was that there are more than 4 million head of livestock and 3 million big-game animals grazing on public land.
Four wild yearling fillies from the Oregon rangelands graze at the Spokane fairgrounds as the BLM prepares for a wild horse and burro adoption 13 May 2005 in Spokane. Photo: Getty Images
Since 1973, the BLM has adopted out about 100,000 wild horses and burros. Between 5,000 and 10,000 animals are available for adoption each year. An online auction is currently underway for a handful of horses in four locations. Since 1997, the adoption fee has been $125 per horse or burro and $250 for a paired mare and foal.
Over the years, the BLM has reduced the number of herd management areas from 303 to 201, removing 12.5 million acres of the 47 million acres allocated for wild horses and burros by the 1971 Act. Despite the glut in holding pens, BLM plans to remove another 4,000 horses by this fall. Today, there are reportedly fewer than 30,000 wild horses and burros remaining on public lands. One consequence: increased land available for grazing cattle.
Multi-Purpose Land Use: Cattle Grazing
BLM manages public lands for multiple uses. One of those uses is livestock grazing, initially authorized by the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. In 1986, the grazing fee was set at a minimum of $1.35 per animal unit month (AUM). In 1990, the grazing fee was $1.81 per AUM; in 1996, the fee was $1.61 per AUM. The grazing fee for 2008 is $1.35 per AUM, the same level as it was in 2007. In 1986 dollars, today’s fee is equivalent to $2.66.
In other words, in real dollars, in 1986 it cost a rancher about twice as much to graze an animal than it does today. In nominal dollars, it cost about 20% more to feed an animal in 1996 than today and about 34% more to feed an animal in 1990 than today. The BLM has the authority toincrease grazing fees by up to 25% from year-to-year, per a Reagan-era executive order. However, there is no indication that this is being considered as a means of increasing the agency’s budget.
Critics of this program assert that the public is heavily subsidizing cattle grazing on public lands. The Rangeland Reform 1994 Draft Environmental Impact Statement, for example, reported that the fair market value of the public lands open to grazing range ranged from a low of $5.72/AUM in Arizona to a high of $17.00/AUM in Nebraska.
In 1983, the federal government lost more than $41 million on grazing cattle. Estimates are that less than 3% of the cattle raised in the US are raised on public land.
A 1999 report in the San Jose Mercury News showed that the top 10 percent of grazing permit holders controlled 65 percent of BLM land. These are not “family ranchers” — one of the largest permit holders is privately-owned J.R. Simplot, which supplies most of the French fries sold by McDonald’s. The firm had $3.3 billion in sales in 2006. Simplot was one of the richest men in America; he died earlier this year at age 99. Another major permit holder: the Hilton Family Trust.
According to the BLM, the number of animals being grazed under permit is declining and is less than the agency would allow under permit. In fiscal 2007, the number of AUMs on BLM-managed land was 6.8 million, compared to 7.8 million AUMs in fiscal 2006. In 2007, the agency would have permitted almost twice as many AUMs as it did: 12.6 million.
In another example of the controversy surrounding the grazing program, three consecutive studies have shown that cattle grazing is harming the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument near Ashland, OR. Only 11 ranchers graze on the land, bringing in $2,000 a year to the federal budget. The cost of fencing to protect the streams and plant life: $4 million.
Finally, critics charge that little has changed since a 1990 GAO report (pdf) that concluded “… the primary cause of the degradation in rangeland resources is poorly managed domestic (primarily cattle and sheep) livestock.”
Alternatives To Slaughter
Another wild horse home made famous by Marguerite Henry (Misty of Chincoteague) uses a contraceptive vaccine (PZP) developed with the help of the Humane Society to control population. In 2004, the USGS reported (pdf) that $7.7 million could be saved annually by using contraception.
On The Web:
- The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign
- The Cloud Foundation
- Galloping Scared
- Horse Wars
- Improvements Needed in Federal Wild Horse Program (GAO, 1990, pdf)
- Mustangs 4 Us
- Waste of the West: Public Lands Ranching
- Wild Horses and Burros Links