(Opinion) — When I reached Ginger Kathrens on her cell phone, she was standing on top of Montana’s Pryor Mountains looking down on a majestic herd of wild horses. When she described the scene I immediately wished I could have been standing next to her.

“I’m looking at this great huge snow bank that covers this alpine meadow and it feeds this clear crystal pond below,” she said. “The horses are coming down in family groups, one by one. I think if everyone could see this rich family, you know …” Her voice trailed off during a long pause. “It takes your breath away.”

That wonderful scene, featuring an American icon symbolizing the spirit of freedom in the West, could be erased forever if President Donald Trump gets his way. Kathrens said she doubts he will, but added that you never know what could happen in today’s scary political climate.

Kathrens, a filmmaker and wild horse rescuer, has made several documentaries capturing what has happened to the wild horses of the West since Congress unanimously passed the Wild Horse and Burro Protection Act of 1971.

“The people who passed it never, ever thought it would come to this — the slaughter of thousands of healthy animals,” she said. “I do think the public considers this hideous, cruel and unthinkable. I think the only thing that stands between the killing of the American wild horses is the American public.”

In an effort to save $10 million a year, the president submitted a budget that calls for unrestricted sales of wild horses on the range in 10 Western states, including Wyoming. Animal rights supporters know that these horses will be sold and transported to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada, where they will be viciously killed by workers and the meat sent to European countries where it is considered a delicacy.

That’s what has happened to an unknown number of horses sold to people under a Bureau of Land Management adoption program. They promised to properly care for them under the protections guaranteed by the 1971 law. The United States has banned slaughterhouses, but the BLM has been unable to completely stop the practice of shipping wild horses to our North American neighbors for slaughter that’s legal in those countries.

The “unrestricted” sale of the animals under Trump’s plan could wipe out thousands of wild horses, Kathrens said. In 2015, officials discovered that Colorado rancher Tom Davis was sold 1,800 wild horses by the Bureau of Land Management that he shipped to Mexico to be killed.

“It’s almost unthinkable what could happen,” Kathrens said. “There are going to be a lot more Tom Davises if Trump’s proposal is approved.” Only now, the rancher’s cruel treatment of wild horses would no longer be illegal.

No funding to enforce existing law

Kathrens charged that the protection program has never been adequately funded, but added she respects the BLM crews that are responsible for round-ups in Wyoming’s Red Desert so the wild animals can be adopted. “These are good people,” she said. “I know that they don’t want healthy horses put to death.”

Kathrens said the use of contraceptive vaccines in the wild and in government holding pens where about 45,000 wild horses are kept have been successful despite the claims of opponents who have questioned and ridiculed the method. “Everyplace it’s been used it has worked,” she said.

“Last year the BLM used 400 doses of the vaccine throughout the entire West,” Kathrens said, noting that the low number would hardly make a dent in reducing the wild horse population that the powerful ranching lobby has claimed is ruining the leased rangeland where they feed their cattle. Funding for population control is so low, she said, it doesn’t even come close to 1 percent of the BLM’s budget.

The federal government estimates there are about 73,000 wild horses on the open range. Kathrens said the BLM claims only a population up to 26,700 is sustainable, which is why so many have been shipped to holding pens scattered in several states where their care costs $50 million per year. While she doubts the accuracy of those numbers and wonders “where did they pull those out of,” she said the population is hardly anything when compared to the millions of cattle that ranchers raise on public land.

“Prior to Trump, the land was leased for $2.02 a month per cow-calf pair, and as soon as he took office it was reduced to $1.87,” Kathrens noted, adding that the paltry amount is far lower than the actual fair market value of the land.

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“In Montana it costs us $50 per month for every horse we have that’s been rescued from the Pryor Mountain herd,” she noted. “The taxpayers are losing a lot of money. Something’s very wrong here.”

There’s no doubt that the federal government is subsidizing ranchers while being lobbied to literally wipe out herds of wild horses that in reality offer them little competition for grazing. Allowing the horses to be slaughtered, even if it is in other countries, should be considered a national tragedy. But it isn’t because the ranchers have managed to successfully portray themselves as victims battling the federal government.

If she could have her way, Kathrens said, she would allow all geldings now kept in BLM holding pens to be repatriated back to their herds. That strategy would cut in half the expense of maintaining the wild horses in holding pens, she said, and allow more mares to be sent where there are no stallions in the 20 million acres that have been taken away from wild horse use.

She’s at a loss to explain how ranchers can claim that wild horses are overpopulating the Western ranges. “Let’s say the 73,000 number of horses in the wild is correct,” Kathrens said. “When divided over 10 states, that’s only 7,300 per state. They don’t even have 150 to 200 horses in more than 70 percent of the herds, which doesn’t even achieve the minimum for the genetic viability of the herds.”

Kathrens said she testified at a congressional hearing on wild horses a year ago, and she became upset when she listened to Wyoming’s then-congresswoman, Rep. Cynthia Lummis, “purr as she said euthanasia was a wonderful way to die.”

Trump’s proposal to allow thousands of horses to be butchered doesn’t surprise me, considering his already outrageous short presidential history of reneging on the U.S.’s signing of the Paris Accord on climate change, gutting of critical federal environmental protections, and just about everything he’s done since voters made the mistake of handing him the keys to the White House.

If Trump is really that intent on saving the federal government $10 million, he should just skip a couple of weekend trips to the “Southern White House” at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

But for those who support his proposed treatment of our nation’s precious, irreplaceable wild horses, I have a question: What the hell is wrong with you people?

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. A small reality check for all these comments. I will point out that Friends of a Legacy (FOAL) in the McCullough Peaks works very nicely with the BLM to vaccinate the local herd with PZP. It is birth control that works and works well. It prevents new births of horses for a year or more. No roundups necessary in recent years. It is extremely inexpensive and FOAL is actually buying the vaccine for use on the horses on the BLM Management Range. Saving the government lots of money. These horses are WILD and there are numerous tourist visits to the horse area creating a new source of local income. By the way, PZP can work on many kinds of animals and would be an answer to bison overpopulation in the Yellowstone herd. If you want an answer to this problem just call us and we’ll help you solve it.

    1. Excellent response, Mr. Murphy. We are also using PZP in southwestern Colorado’s Spring Creek Basin Herd Management Area (as well as in other Colorado HMAs), and have not had need of any removals in Spring Creek Basin since 2011, with none in sight as we are still under AUM. PZP is the answer, and costs well under a dollar per mare per year! Surely the U.S. government can afford that!

  2. Conspiracy theories and emotions are used when one has no facts, proof or science to support their thoughts or beliefs. History, actual experiences and science will actually help find solution that work. For true wild horse advocates who really want to have healthy horses on healthy ranges read “Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward,” study it and gain a true understanding of the issues surrounding our Wild Horse and Burro Program. Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward. National Wild Horse and Burro Rangeland Management Coalition. Horse Sense – Mustangs.

  3. These stories always start with the vision of a small herd of wild horses running across the plains. There are two issues that need to be solved. The first is management of the wild herd on public land and the second is what do you do with the removed horses. I think you could still have a small managed herd on public land and when horses are removed they are put up for adoption and those that are not adopted are sold for slaughter or given away to run wild on private property but the taxpayer should not be paying for the horses that are not adopted. The 27,000 (I even heard there are 46,000) horses on long term holding pastures are costing us almost $13,000.00. That should be stopped today. The first issue of what to do with the “wild” horses on public land should also be reduced in size. I was in Teddy Roosevelt NP last week in North Dakota and view some of the herd right next to the paved road through the park. They are not wild by any stretch of the imagination. We have to manage the overpopulated whitetail deer herds in the northeast part of the USA horses are no different. I have given you a plan that will work. What is your long term plan other than watching them run across the plains?

  4. Ranchers were not the reason our Little Colorado herd was rounded up here in Sublette County. It was the drilling in the gas field that prompted their removable.

  5. If we want to start removing nonnative species how about we start with the humans here? But seriously there is a proven birth control that can be implemented to manage our mustangs and it costs a lot less than roundups and holding.

  6. Management of wild horses is indeed a complicated issue, made almost impossible to resolve by the Wild Horses and Burros Act. The feral horse is the only animal, wild or domestic, which cannot be managed by lethal control. As a result, they continue to overpopulate and and destroy the range, to the detriment of native flora and fauna. You can complain about federal grazing fees for domestic livestock, but at least cattle and sheep on the public lands are managed. Wild horses are not effectively managed. The current system is broke; it makes absolutely no sense to spend $50 million per year to pasture wild horses until the end of their lives when there are so many other pressing matters which should be addressed by the BLM. There is certainly a place for wild horses in Wyoming and elsewhere in the west, but we must be able to manage them, and the ability to send some to slaughter, just as we do with cattle and sheep, is an essential part of that management. I realize that Kerry Drake’s piece is opinion and not reportage, but I would have hoped for a comprehensive look at the problem from Wyofile.

  7. Overpopulation: Is the Big Lie, the pretext for BLM’s propaganda-campaign against the wild horses. The Lie gets the funding.

    Normal Rates: Horses are slow to reproduce. Gestation lasts 11 months, and a mare produces 1 foal. Independent research by Gregg et al. (2014) found that the birth rate in wild-horse herds is slightly less than 20%. However, 50% of foals perish before their first birthday. At least 5% of wild horses other-than-foals also die every year. The adult death-rate (5%) further reduces the surviving-foal rate (10%), yielding a normal herd-growth rate of 5%.

    Bogus Rates: BLM reports herd-growth rates that defy credulity. Here are just a few examples of BLM’s fraudulent one-year increases for Wyoming herds:

    71% — 14 times the norm — Adobe Town
    79% — 16 times the norm — Antelope Hills
    111% — 22 times the norm — Crooks Mountain
    237% — 47 times the norm — Divide Basin
    81% — 16 times the norm — Green Mountain
    108% — 22 times the norm — Lost Creek
    522% — 104 times the norm — Salt Wells Creek
    111% — 22 times the norm — Stewart Creek

    To achieve that much net growth in spite of mortality rates, the respective birth rates would have to have been even higher. Such increases are biologically impossible.

    Unethical Manipulation: BLM staffers cannot claim ignorance. They are college-educated professionals with degrees in science and range management. They are well-aware that wild-horse-and-burro herds cannot increase at exponential rates. Yet, even after such impossible growth-estimates are brought to their attention, they willfully continue to cite them, alarming local ranchers. Worse yet, BLM then bases management-decisions on the fraudulent figures.

    Integrity of the Data: BLM is bound by the Information Quality Act and by the Code of Scientific and Scholarly Conduct to disseminate information obtained through “as rigorous scientific and scholarly processes as can be achieved.” However, BLM’s data with regard to mustangs is deceitful. Making false representations violates Title 18 USC 1001 of the Federal criminal code.

    Underpopulated: According to the guidelines of BLM’s own geneticist, the arbitrary management levels (AMLs) of 83% of wild-horse herds — and 90% of wild-burro herds — are set below minimum-viable population (MVP). Example: BLM restricts Wyoming’s Red Desert Complex herds to 1 wild horse per 2½ square miles. Imagine if livestock were held to the same stocking-density.

    Resource v. Use: Wild horses and burros are a resource of the public lands — like other wildlife-species. Commercial livestock-grazing, in contrast, is a use of the public lands. As Clarke and Leigh pointed out, the difference between a resource and a use is an important distinction. Livestock-grazing (a use) impacts wild horses and burros (a resource). A resource must be conserved; a use must be managed. BLM has these inverted.

    PEER Reveal: Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) reports that BLM’s method of assessing range-conditions is skewed to minimize impacts from domestic livestock and to magnify those from wild horses and burros. BLM thus favors “use” and blames “resource.”

    Predators: Mustangs do have predators — mountain lions, bears, wolves, and coyotes — but they are persecuted mercilessly. Wildlife Services exterminates what trophy-hunters don’t shoot. The right way to right-size the wild-horse population is Nature’s way — predators. To achieve a “thriving natural ecological balance,” the herd-areas should be safe-havens for predators. Such an approach would help the wild horses by favoring survival-of-the-fittest and the best genetic adaptations. Predators are the “no-cost” option.

    Restore Herd Areas: BLM would have us believe that it “takes care” of the wild horses’ habitat when it “takes away” habitat from them. A lot of habitat. More than 22 million acres of habitat were closed by BLM for political expediency. That land should be reopened and the equine captives freed there. Cost: $0.

    Lagomorphs and Locusts: Wild horses are allowed on only about 13% of our public lands. They are not significant competitors to cattle. The dominant herbivores on the Western range are lagomorphs (jackrabbits, cottontails, hares) and locusts (grasshoppers, crickets).

    A recent study in Utah found that lagomorphs were consuming 34% of the forage on local grazing-allotments.

    http://www.sltrib.com/news/2080640-155/usu-study-jackrabbits-are-a-bigger?fullpage=1

    In normal times, grasshoppers consume 20-to-25% of the forage in areas where they are present. However, in times of outbreaks, locusts can devour nearly all of it!

    https://www.wyofile.com/column/grasshoppers-thrive-warming-wyoming-range/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=weeklynewsletter

    Here is the most recent USDA map, showing massive areas of locust-infestation.

    https://www.sidney.ars.usda.gov/grasshopper/Extras/2016GHwMC.htm

  8. I am astounded that Mr. Drake did not have a more thoughtful and in-depth look at a very complicated issue. This is a problem that has to find a solution that is more than destroy the landscape, all the species that depend on it, and ultimately the horses.

  9. There isn’t much good I can say about Trump and his henchmen, but this is an exception. Just take a look at the riparian areas on Green Mountain area, or in the Red Desert, or in the Prior Mountains. They are being destroyed by overgrazing from these feral horses. Native wildlife populations have suffered from the large numbers of these introduced invasive species. Sure, horses are beautiful and it’s thrilling to see them running across the prairie, but I can do that on someone’s ranch where their numbers can be properly managed.

    Ranchers used to turn their excess horses out on public lands when they were not needed and then rounded up when they were. When mechanized equipment became more readily available ranchers simply abandoned them. These horses should be removed from public lands at the earliest possible time, just as any other large non-native invasive species would be.

    1. Hi Ron;
      I just returned from near you—visited Green Mountain, Lost Creek, Crooks Mountain, and Stewart Creek HMAs. The only riparian damage I saw was in Stewart Creek where a large herd of cattle has completely decimated a large pond area below an earthen dam. Interestingly, we saw no horses in the entire Stewart Creek HMA but photographed hundreds of head of cattle. I am sure the horses were around but must have been in the high hills. Because horses do not camp at water and cattle do, bovines are far more destructive around water sources as you probably already know. I have photos that document this damage
      if you are interested in seeing them. Just let me know.

      And to clarify, the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range (PMWHR) has only one real riparian area and that is in the low country. There is no damage in that area. The Horse Range has not had livestock since the late 1960s. There are water cachements and two ponds atop the mountain-one ephemeral pond and the other is
      spring fed.

      Also, the horse is native to North American and only died out about 7,500 years ago per the newest science.
      The species that lived for at least 100,00 years before it died out is E. lambei and was virtually identical to many contemporary wild horses in the West, particularly the smallish duns in the Pryor Range. As Ross MacPhee, curator of Mammals at the NY Museum of Natural History has said, “If the wild horse is not native to NA, then where is it native?” The horse originated here and completed its evolutionary path in NA. It returned with the Spanish. The “non-native invasive species” statement is inaccurate.

      In fact a Park Service biologist friend of mine who worked at the Bighorn Canyon said the only hooved animal more native than the wild horse is the Pronghorn as the Pronghorn did not migrate over the land bridge to Asia and they never died out here in NA. The wild horse is a returned native and is ideally suited to the spectacular areas I visited the other day–just perfect wild horse country.

  10. Just rambling…I don’t have enough information to have formed an opinion on overall “wild” horse management on public lands, so don’t take this too serious. I just wonder how a similar scenario would be viewed by the author if the issue at hand was about 75,000 “wild” pigs on BLM land? Hey, I like horses too, but in fact they are feral and not native. I believe it to be less humane (and much less financially responsible) to round-up, castrate/sterilize and ultimately pen these animals than to manage them as many other species of animal on public lands. Hunting season??? The collective romanticized vision of these creature has led us to a place that is impractical at best.

  11. Kerry, it’s easy to have a knee jerk reaction and parrot opinions fed to you like you’re a baby bird after worms. “Trump bad”, “horses majestic”, etc.. Check into how many feral horses are presently warehoused by the BLM with no end date to their “durance vile”, other than their death. That’s just one facet of the many faceted feral horse problem in the West, Search some back issues of HCN, educate yourself beyond the “horses pretty” stage, please!