After surviving the ice age, the industrial revolution and the slaughterhouse, America's wild horse population is facing a new threat: the U.S. government. The Bureau of Land Management announced this week that it is considering euthanizing wild horses to curb the population on the range and in federal holding facilities. There are an estimated 33,000 wild horses living in 10 Western states, and another 30,000 living in government corrals. The BLM is billing euthanasia as a way to cope with looming budget cuts, while still maintaining the mustang as a living symbol of the American West. But critics say that the herds have already been thinned to the edge of extinction with periodic roundups and auctions. A century ago, there were around 2 million wild horses roaming the West; now the BLM wants to cut that population to 27,000. In "Mustang," her new history of the wild horse in North America, Deanne Stillman explores why America is destroying the horse it rode in on. She spoke about the government's new proposal with NEWSWEEK's Tony Dokoupil. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: How surprised are you by this proposed alteration of federal policy?
Deanne Stillman: It's shocking. Then again, there's been a move to dismantle the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, which enshrines mustangs as a protected symbol of freedom, since it passed in 1971. And the move is reaching its peak under the Bush administration. For the past eight years, the president has wrapped himself in the flag and now, three days before the Fourth of July, his administration announces plans to exterminate our greatest icon—the very horse we rode in on.
What are the biggest threats to the wild horse population?
I think it comes down to mismanagement. Study after government study, dating back to the Teddy Roosevelt administration, shows that it's livestock grazing that does the most damage to the range, not wild horses. You can't say that 20-something-thousand horses are doing more damage to the land than 4 million cows. Yet the Bureau of Land Management claims that wild horses are overrunning the West and that there is an "overpopulation" problem. It's simply not true. The only place there is an overpopulation problem is in government corrals—because the horses shouldn't have been removed from their home turf in such great numbers to begin with.
Then what's spurring the BLM to cut herd sizes?
There are a number of factors. The livestock lobby regards mustangs as pests, animals that steal food from cows, and since members of the lobby lease federal land for ranching, they pressure the BLM to curb the wild mustang population. There are also a lot of other things happening on public lands these days: increased oil and gas drilling, mineral leases, development. The BLM is supposed to determine how many wild horses as well as cows and sheep the range can support with range studies, but these are not always up to date. What this all comes back to is mismanagement: The fox is guarding the henhouse.
Historically, how has the BLM managed the mustang population?
Federal management of our wild horses has been plagued from the start. Over the years, there have been various disasters. The first one that I know of was in 1977, when about 200 wild horses in a government holding facility in Nevada died because agency personnel failed to clean out their corrals after a series of storms and the muck froze and the animals couldn't move. The horses were buried in mass graves and it was only when photos surfaced in newspapers that the story became known. There have been others since then. To be fair, many horses have been successfully placed through the government's adopt-a-horse program, making their way into partnerships with the right people. But now there are more horses in BLM pipelines than on the range, and they ought to be returned to their home turf, where they belong, rather than a trip to the gallows. Does this mean I am saying there should be no management of wild horse herds? No.
Where does the public stand on this issue?
People across the board—right wing, left wing—aren't happy about our stripping away the wild horse population and the American heritage that goes with it. We're a country that was born in the hoof sparks of Paul Revere's famous ride on a horse. The horse is our great icon of freedom and the open road, and that's why our greatest road-trip car is the Mustang, with the galloping pony on the grille, and that's why we drape horses with flags on July 4th and ride them down Main Street.
What explains America's strange relationship with the horse?
I think it's something very deep and primal. We love the wild but want to tame it. The lone survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn—that's how he was billed at the time, in 1876, on the country's bicentennial—was a horse named Comanche, described by the army as "our great silent witness" in his retirement citation. He had seen many terrible things and continued to do so, including the massacre at Wounded Knee, watching it from the pack train, even though he was no longer on active duty. And that's what these horses are. They are our witnesses. They've been on the front lines with us since day one; they know our deepest darkest secrets, and there's a part of us that can't take it.
What needs to be done?
I have a solution: The BLM keeps complaining about the "expense" of managing wild horses. Its annual budget of $39 million dollars is not much these days, but if money is really an issue for the agency, then the government should ask Americans to donate to the cause of preservation, and put a box at the end of IRS forms, just like they do with various other funds and even the presidential election, asking taxpayers to check off a box and the amount of the donation. It would raise hundreds of millions of dollars. After all, the wild horse is us.
Editor's Note: To read a response to this story from Wyoming Gov. David Freudenthal, click here.