Rep. John Winter (R-Thermopolis) rode horseback into the Red Desert to see some new country last year.
An outfitter and rancher, Winter was accompanied by a rangeland specialist and members of the Rock Springs Grazing Association. During the outing he learned a good bit about a growing natural resource concern in that corner of the state: Wild horses.
“I’ll tell you, there are just too many horses,” Winter said. “They’re affecting sage grouse and other wildlife, and it’s ruining the range.”
Newly passionate about the issue, the third-term state representative tried to get the attention of Wyoming’s congressional delegation “the best way” he knew how, by sponsoring legislation.
House Joint Resolution 3 – Wild horses and burros-best management practices calls on the federal government to amend the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 and other policies, so that wild horses can be gathered, slaughtered, processed and shipped to market domestically or abroad.
“Right now we’re sending horses to these feedlots,” Winter said, “and that’s costing the taxpayer over $77 million a year — and that’s unacceptable.”
Winter said that he knows that most Americans hold a deep stigma against consuming horse meat, though he noted that there are developed markets for equine meat in Asia and Europe. The outfitter and horseman from Thermopolis would consider bringing his old retired steeds to a slaughterhouse, though he admitted probably not his “old standby horses.”
“People need a place to take old horses,” Winter said. “They’re not serving a purpose anymore, people can’t afford to feed them, and we need to provide that opportunity.”
The resolution, filed on Friday, has garnered support from powerful figures in the Wyoming Legislature. Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale), the House speaker, signed on as a co-sponsor, and so has Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower), the Senate president.
Driskill, a member of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association, said that he’s “stunned” by how poorly wild horses are regulated relative to domestic livestock.
“Here we have a species that is not an indigenous species, and it’s causing vast amounts of resource damage,” Driskill said. “Much of it is [occurring] in environmentally fragile country that doesn’t recover quickly from overgrazing.”
Most of the wild horses in Wyoming live in the southwestern high desert, dwelling on Bureau of Land Management property and the private-public checkerboard landscape. Smaller herds inhabit the Bighorn Basin where populations have been better held in check, but those in the Red Desert and Green River basin have vastly exceeded herd management area objectives, triggering large roundups.
Some conservation groups argue that wild horses, icons of the West, are unfairly scapegoated and vilified by the livestock industry. Land managers and others, however, point to real ecological concerns with the nonnative species’ impacts on open western rangelands.
The Wild Horse Preservation Society, a Laramie-based organization, did not respond to an interview request on Monday.
Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said that he would be supporting HJR 3.
“It’s a good statement,” Magagna said. “It’s a way for the state to express some serious concerns with the fact that the current practices are not keeping numbers within management [goals].”
Like “so many” other resolutions, he said, this one is nothing more than “symbolic.”
“Unfortunately those [resolutions] go back to Congress, and that’s where they die,” Magagna said. “They’re a good statement of policy and how we all feel, but I’ve yet to see one that Congress sees and then they do a bill in reaction to it.”