Euthanizing Wild Horses: Readers Talk Back

If you drew up a list of things that divide the country, horses probably wouldn't appear near the top. But they should, if the response to NEWSWEEK's interview last week with wild horse advocate Deanne Stillman is anything to go by. She blasted the Bureau of Land Management's proposed policy of euthanasia to curb the wild horse population, claiming that American mustangs deserve better than "a trip to the gallows." But for every defender of the horse's right to roam free, there is an equally hard-core realist who says that management is an inescapable reality. When people from those two camps met on, it got as wild as the Old West, stretching more than 100 printed pages, including letters from the BLM and the governor of Wyoming. Here were the major dustups, and a taste of the reader comments.

1. Did the wild horses survive the ice age?
In my introduction to the interview, I wrote that they did. But apparently there's more than one way to define "survive." According to Stillman's new book, "Mustang," a history of the wild horse in North America, the ancient horse flourished for millions of years in the Mojave Desert, surviving the ice age by crossing the Bering land bridge to Russia. The descendants of these horses then returned to the Americas in the 1500s, brought by European settlers. That sounds like survival to me. If I survive a house fire, it means I lived through it--it doesn't mean I stood in the flames.

A reader writing under the username Montana1990 agreed with me, pointing out that "North America is the original home of the horse species." Other commenters weren't so sure. Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal wrote that "wild horses are not native to this continent, and as such have no natural controls short of starvation when the population outstrips its habitat." BLM Deputy Director Henri Bisson took the same line, writing that "wild horses were re-introduced" to the West.

What makes this a politicized point is the role it plays in other arguments. If the horse isn't native, some say, it has no right to the land. If it is, then let it run free. That seemed like splitting hairs to some folks. "I really don't care how the wild horses got here," wrote Lions Den. "Killing them is not the answer."

2. Does the BLM have a legitimate reason to curb the horse population?
The answer to this question also depends on semantics, in this case the definition of "legitimate." The BLM wants to cut the wild horse population from an estimated 33,000 to just over 27,000: the ideal size, it says, for herds to thrive in balance with the land-use interests of weekenders, private homeowners, cattle ranchers and horse lovers.

That opened the floodgates of BLM-bashing, as critics claimed the government's figures are based on bad science and bias for the beef industry, which leases public lands. "This is b.s.," wrote Jg55. "You mean to say that the millions of cows on BLM land are causing less damage than 20,000 horses?" 

In addition to citing land-use issues, the BLM's Bisson billed the agency's new proposal as a cost-cutting tool. "The BLM must find ways to stay within our budget," he wrote, "and that requires us to consider the unpopular but legal options" of euthanasia and sell for slaughter. This, too, met with gushers of outrage, "at the penny pinching, life-indifferent attitude of the bureaucrats at BLM."

"As for me," Sgriffiths continued, "I'm going to start writing the BLM and expressing my [disdain]."

The BLM invites it: "Those who would like to voice their views on these issues are encouraged to go our agency's Website ( and click on the public input link."

3. What solutions other than euthanasia are there for managing the wild horse population?
Many readers rejected the idea of management altogether, often in ALL CAPS. Milani23hot wrote "STAND UP AMERICANS!!!!" while Woodsman1st declared, "THE MUSTANG BELONGS FREE ON THE OPEN RANGE!"

Others offered at least two alternatives to euthanasia: better adoption programs and birth control. "Why not just start a gelding program for the studs?" mused Cnchaffin. Elhelh issued a challenge: "rather then whining about how the government takes care of overpopulation, go out and adopt" a horse.

Perhaps the most popular management option came from the author Deanne Stillman, who wants to use public donations to solve the BLM's budget problems. "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."

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