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Deanne Stillman: Let's head off the horse thieves at the pass

July 4, 2008 |  4:23 am

On June 2, Deanne Stillman wrote an Op-Ed on the sorry state of wild horse protection in the American west. Her book on the horses, “Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West,” has since gone on to garner excellent reviews in The Times and elsewhere. She sent us this update:

This week, the Bush administration’s Bureau of Land Management dropped a bombshell: wild horses and burros, supposedly under its protection, may be euthanized. The rationale was familiar — financial problems and the difficulties of controlling wild horse populations . But independent researchers question whether horse populations in the wild are out of control, and the BLM budget for the wild horse and burro program is only $39 million per year, not much in the scheme of federal allocations: It ought to be increased. After all, you can’t really put a price on our heritage (for those who think you can, see my recent Newsweek interview, which offers an easy solution to the BLM’s alleged budget problem).

Since the BLM issued its statement, I’ve been asked by many people if I’m surprised. In one way, I am. For the past eight years, the president has wrapped himself in the flag and then, three days before the Fourth of July, comes a plan that could destroy one of the nation’s greatest symbols. It’s the most unpatriotic thing I’ve ever heard of. Consider this: America was born in the hoof sparks of Paul Revere’s ride (and incidentally, his horse, Brown Beauty, was a descendant of the horses that came to these shores with conquistadors — the foundation stock for today’s mustangs).

On the other hand, I’m not surprised at all. The livestock lobby has been trying to purge public lands of wild horses since 1971, when federal protections for them were enacted. As I said in my op-ed, their efforts have reached a peak under the Bush administration.

The tolling of the bell for mustangs will also please another constituency — those who are clamoring for public lands to build theme parks, extract more minerals, or pump out more oil and gas. Wild horses live on public lands, in protected herd areas. Fewer horses require smaller, or no, protected areas. You get the picture.

Certainly, the BLM knew its announcement would elicit shock, outrage and opposition. As Virginia Parant, campaign director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, told me in an email, in the end, the agency will likely fall back to other options, also disturbing, and present them as more palatable — gelding stalliions in the wild, or “instant titling,” which means immediately awarding mustangs to prospective adopters, instead of the current process that requires the government to check that the horses are cared for properly and not shipped to slaughterhouses, before the deal is finalized.

When he announced the possibility of euthanization, the BLM deputy director Henri Bisson said that the government considered a halt to rounds ups but that would lead to “ecological disaster.” And yet, again as I explained in my Op-Ed, the BLM’s assessments of “appropriate management levels” for the horses and the range are underfunded and often out of date. In fact, wild horses are an integral part of wilderness ecology, and the ecological disaster on the range is the one that stems from over-grazing of cattle, as studies dating back to the Teddy Roosevelt administration have repeatedly shown.

As we gather on July 4th and watch wild horses parade down Main Street in military mounted units — let’s hoist a beer to the animals who helped blaze our trails, fight our wars and settle the West — and then, next week, when the party’s over, let’s contact our representatives and head off the horse thieves at the pass.

— Deanne Stillman

An earlier version of this post misspelled Deanne Stillman's first name.

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