Citizens and government agencies alike need to show wild horses more respect and compassion

On Feb. 24, Tucsonans gathered on the southside to celebrate tradition. The 86th Tucson Rodeo Parade had all of its usual attractions—colorful costumes, flags flying in the wind and more cowboy hats than you can count.

In central Tucson, I discussed a key element of the parade—the horse—with author Deanne Stillman. Instead of seeing animals bedecked with beautiful saddles and awash in color, I listened to Stillman paint a dismal picture of the history of wild horses.

Stillman, author of Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, said you can't discuss the plight of the wild horse (or mustang) without first knowing some history. Her book provides a detailed history of the wild horse—in the New World, on the prairie, in Hollywood and on the range. Stillman outlines how the horse was used—as an aid to soldiers in war, as entertainers, as a target for hunters and as a food source.

It's not a pretty history. There were approximately 2 million wild horses in the United States at the end of the 19th century; today, there are between 22,000 to 33,000 free-roaming horses. An even greater number—approximately 40,000—are in captivity at government holding facilities.

Stillman said that the horse's natural predator—mountain lions—cannot control the horse population. Without a natural predator, the horse population must be managed. It's how the horses are managed that's key in Stillman's mind.

While there are adoption programs and sanctuaries for the horses, the greatest numbers of horses are removed from the range by roundups. Horses are gathered with the use of helicopters. Stillman witnessed a roundup in Nevada in 2004 and said "it was one of the worst things I've ever seen in my life." Mustang advocates point to injuries and fatalities suffered during these roundups.

Once the horses are taken, most are placed in short-term holding facilities. Stillman recalled a case in Nevada several years ago in which horses were taken off a range due to drought. While in a holding facility, someone forgot to turn on a faucet, and six horses died of thirst.

Back on the range, the number of designated herd areas has dwindled. In 1971, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed. A U.S. Senate report stated: "The principal goal of this legislation is to provide for the protection of the animals from man and not the single use management of areas for the benefit of wild free-roaming horses and burros." Sounds good, but Stillman said more than 100 wild-horse ranges have been eliminated since then.

I first spoke with Stillman almost three years ago. (See "Wild Hooves," City Week, June 5, 2008.) I asked what recent changes she has seen. "More and more people know about (the wild horse situation). A couple of roundups have been cancelled in the past few months. People are filing lawsuits. The brighter the light, the better it is for mustangs."

Light shined in the U.S. House in February, when an amendment was approved to cut the Bureau of Land Management's budget by $2 million in protest of the agency's roundups. The BLM then announced reforms to their wild-horse management program. They propose to increase science-based fertility control, reduce the number of removals, promote volunteerism in managing horses, and improve transparency.

In response to the news, Stillman wrote, "I think the announcement is an interesting development, but to quote Ronald Regan, 'Trust but verify.' I still stand by my many calls for a moratorium on roundups pending an overhaul of management policy." Stillman said proper studies must be conducted to get an accurate count of horses, which can then lead to correlated management practices.

Besides looking to the BLM, Stillman said Americans must look to themselves. "I'd like people to revisit our history ... (and) understand the role (the wild horse) played in making our country (and know) what's at stake if we lose it—our identity and our soul as a nation."

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