The Drake's Take

Can Secretary Jewell clean up Salazar’s wild horse mess?

By Kerry Drake
— August 6, 2013

Ken Salazar may not have totally destroyed the Wild Horse and Burro Management Program while he was head of the Interior Department, but he made an already terrible situation far worse. Now advocates for the animals hope a change at the top leads to some positive changes in a program they believe has been a disaster since it was created by Congress in 1971.

Kerry Drake
Kerry Drake

Ginger Kathrens, a filmmaker who has spent the past 19 years documenting the activities of the Pryor Mountain wild horse herd in Wyoming and Montana, said Salazar was a rancher who viewed the animals as pests, and implemented policies that treated them as such. He left office dodging questions about the sale of 1,700 wild horses to one of his Colorado neighbors, who had them slaughtered. The matter is still under investigation.

Under Salazar, the program’s budget more than doubled while most of its efforts failed miserably. The agency now spends 60 percent of the program budget on expenses related to the more than 50,000 horses it rounded up that are now kept in holding pens. The rest is spent “managing” the remaining 38,000 wild horses left roaming the West, but as a damning report issued in June by the National Academy of Sciences noted, that estimate is nothing but a guess.

Kathrens, who lives on a ranch in Westcliffe, Colo., said the BLM has just wanted to see wild horses gone, literally managed to extinction. Jeannine Stallings, a long-time animal advocate in Cheyenne, agrees.

“The BLM has failed in its mission 100 percent, on purpose,” Stallings charged.

Stallings, 83, has watched the agency carefully and critically over the years. When I interviewed her about the wild horse program in 1987, she said the agency had ignored studies it commissioned from the National Academy of Sciences then “because they didn’t get the results they wanted.”

Wearing a bright yellow T-shirt that proclaims, “Americans Don’t Eat Horses,” Stallings said while she voted for Barack Obama twice and considers him a good president, “He certainly hasn’t been a friend to wild horses.”

Why should anything be different now?

Kathrens said that Sally Jewell, the new secretary of Interior appointed by Obama, doesn’t have the personal animosity toward wild horses that Salazar had. “She brings with her a love of the wild and open spaces,” she explained. “If she appoints people to key positions who agree with her, who have progressive ideas about how wild horses should be managed — and the old guard that just wants to get rid of them is gone — things could change.”

Stallings likes the fact that Jewell is known to support Native American issues, and since wild horses are a huge part of the Indian culture, she said, “I hope that spills over to wild horse and burro issues.”

Time will tell if Jewell is able to — or even wants to — change the program’s direction, but in the meantime the lives of thousands of wild horses are at risk here and in nine other Western states.

“In Wyoming, we have a tragedy in the making,” Kathrens said. She was referring to the BLM’s plan to “zero out” the Rock Springs herd on private land, which will mean taking all of the horses off public land as well. The animals would be rounded up and moved to Salt Wells and Adobe Town in the Red Desert, where forage is scarce.

The Rock Springs herd has become a great tourist attraction to the area, she noted, but under the BLM’s plan, people would no longer have road access to see the wild horses.

Kathrens has likely done more than anyone else to raise the public’s awareness of the multitude of problems facing America’s wild horses. She has produced three films for PBS’s “Nature” series, focusing on the Pryor Mountain herd and in particular the life of Cloud, a wild pale palomino stallion whose birth was captured by her camera 18 years ago.

Stallings said Cloud has been rounded up several times up by helicopter crews contracted by BLM, but always freed. “They could never take Cloud off the range,” she said. “They know the public just wouldn’t stand for it.”

Kathrens said the herd now has two Cloud lookalikes in Echo, his grandson, and Encore, his daughter. The filmmaker said she’s happy that the palomino she helped make famous will live on through his offspring. “He’s not going to live forever,” she said.

The nonprofit Cloud Foundation started by Kathrens is dedicated to preventing the extinction of Cloud’s herd through education, media events and programming, and public involvement. It is also dedicated to protecting other wild horse herds on public lands, especially isolated herds with unique characteristics and historical significance.

For years, the BLM has defended its management program and maintained that the roundups are necessary. But some former BLM officials are now decrying what the agency is doing.

Bob Edwards, who retired in 2005 after 30 years with the BLM managing wild horses and working as a natural resources specialist, told NBC News last year that “the wild horses are not getting a fair shake. I don’t think they have been given their proper place on the landscape in the American West.”

What should happen to the 50,000 wild horses being kept in pens by the federal government? Kathrens said the obvious solution is to “take some of the 24 million acres of public land where the herds have been ‘zeroed out’ and put them back on the range.”

Her fear, though, is that the agency will surreptitiously get rid of the animals by selling them off to eventually be slaughtered when the public isn’t paying attention.

Stallings shares her concern. “The fact is that BLM is winning and we’re losing,” she said. “Things have always been bad, but it’s much worse today, and it’s going to take a national outcry [for things to improve]. I just hope it doesn’t end in a horrendous, final tragedy. … I want to live long enough to see something positive happen.”

Thanks in large part to Stallings, Kathrens and other animal advocates’ abilities to stir up the public, wild horses have not disappeared from the range yet. But they’ve been right about these issues for decades, and are still largely ignored by the federal government. It’s time someone in charge seriously listens to them, and I hope Sally Jewell is the one who does.

— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is the editor-in-chief of The Casper Citizen, a nonprofit, online community newspaper. It can be viewed at

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Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Ditto Anna and Common Sense. The Navajo Nation and some other Native American tribes support horse slaughter houses because they have finally realized the damage feral horses do. The Jicarilla’s have a tremendous problem with them which spill over into the Carson Nat’l Forest. The Southern Utes have too many which encroach on Mesa Verde Nat’l Park. Their numbers need to be thinned is some areas and eradicated, if possible, in others. I support native wildlife over introduced. For taxpayer relief, the horses in pens should immediately be sent to Mexico for slaughter, as our US slaughter houses may be tied up in court by the radicals for years. Goodness knows, the Mexicans could use the protein in their meager diet.
    I realize this is an affair of the heart for many, so science and reason are ignored.
    But we, the taxpayer are picking up the bill for their ignorance, not to mention the wildlife and range taking it in the shorts.

  2. Wow! I can’t believe some of the comments here. First, the mustang is a symbol of the west and deserves to be wild and free. Second, horses ARE native to North America. Yes, these mustangs did originate from horses brought over from Europe, but in case people commenting here are aware of this, a lot of species that were extinct, which was the case with native wild horses, have been reintrduced. This isn’t a new concept, it is done all the time. As to what about the damage they do to other species, think about the thousands of grazing cattle on those same lands, which are there by permission of BLM. They do far, far more damage. The horses belong there and should be preserved. Their numbers are perfectly fine for the land they are on, and they are not a danger. I suggest the people commenting otherwise do some real research and get the facts. To be honest with you, you sound like BLM staff or ranchers!

  3. What no one ever talks about is the real reason these horses are being taken off public lands…We had a nice group of horses here, the Little Colorado Herd, but when the began drilling in our county, Sublette, the BLM came in and zeroed out that herd. Ranchers lived with them for decades with no problem but as soon as the extraction industry showed up, the horses were doomed. Check out how many drilling leases have been given in the areas where the round ups are planned. It’s a real eye opener.

  4. Wild horses are native to North America. Please see
    This concept has been accepted by Dr. Ross D. MacPhee, a paleomammalogist at the American Museum of Natural History, and by Dr. Beth Shapiro, an ancient DNA specialist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. We use peer-reviewed scientific papers to arrive at our conclusions. Where is the hard data to show that wild horses are nonnative or feral? And just where is the unbiased data to show that wild horses are more destructive to ecosystems than any other native wildlife?

    As far as the wild horse “overpopulation” issue is concerned, the Bureau of Land Management was recently blasted by the National Academy of Sciences for not using safe, effective, and readily available immunocontraceptive vaccines for fertility control. The BLM was also chastised for utilizing poor scientific methods in censusing wild horses in the wild. This scathing report upheld what wild horse advocates have been saying for decades. The BLM was not the right agency for the job of running the national Wild Horse and Burro Program. Wild Horse Annie wanted the National Park Service to take the program in 1971, but the NPS waved the “exotic species” flag and declined. That sealed the fate of wild horses. The Bureau of Land Management was formed during a government reorganization in 1946, combining two former federal agencies — the General Land Office and the U.S. Grazing Service. The U.S. Grazing Service had a policy of shooting wild horses on sight. Now an agency that sprang from these anti-wild horse USDA roots is given the duty of managing wild horses?

    And, lastly, the federal government has removed all funding from BLM coffers to slaughter wild horses. So, like it or not, it’s not going to happen. Wyoming Rep. Sue Wallis (R-Recluse) and her ilk are being mowed down at every juncture. She has not won a single battle in her war against horses. Neither public sentiment nor the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act are on her side… and now a federal judge in Albuquerque has ruled against the opening of two horse slaughter plants in New Mexico and Iowa via a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO). Too bad that it will soon be permanent. The Great Spirit is on our side…

  5. For those that have not done the research– Horses came to america from the Spaniards horses in recent history– Feral horses not wild– How many grouse eggs do you suppose get broken by their hooves? Renewable resource lets feed the world and save our native species!

  6. How come a lake trout is considered feral but a non native horse is considered wild? What about all the domestic horses turned loose and escape that are bred by a mustang- are they and their foals wild? What about native species being injured due to over crowding? What about all the starving folks in the world that would consume with glee this regenerating meat factory? What about disease that can spread to all of Americas horses? Oh ya— common sense cant prevail with leftist enviro bullies—- I’m off for a hoss pot roast to consider this dilemma—

  7. There is not one mention in this article what an additional 50,000 horses returned to the “lands” and the cost to other animals, plants and land it would create. These are feral horses such as feral cats. While I enjoy going and looking at them, I also enjoy seeing the bighorn sheep, deer, antelope, etc. The problem seems to be that no one wants to use these horses as a resource not only for tourism but for food or glue. We should not be paying ranchers or land owners to “house” these horses in pens for decades. They are making more money that some have even quite raising cattle. Keep some of the feral horses for public relations and adopt them out and then slaughter or euthanize the others. Sadly, we can’t save them all and we (the public) are pushing off on others to make the difficult and hard correct decisions. How come the advocates aren’t paying for the stallions to be gelded and the mares to be spayed so they can stay on the land and not multiply. That is what we do with our “feral” cat populations.