Wild horses are a sym­bol of our pub­lic-land fail­ures

The Arizona Republic - - OPINIONS -

Wild horses are beau­ti­ful, beloved, con­tro­ver­sial, ex­pen­sive for tax­pay­ers and a headache for pub­lic land man­agers. They are also a sym­bol of the pub­lic’s in­creas­ingly com­plex re­la­tion­ship with the pub­lic land. In his spe­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Repub­lic re­porter Bran­don Loomis told the story of the West’s wild horses and re­vealed the com­pet­ing re­al­i­ties and per­cep­tions that make this a multi-faceted is­sue.

Wild horses have strong sup­port­ers who say they are his­toric res­i­dents of the wide open spa­ces and de­serve to be left alone on pub­lic lands.

The an­i­mals also have equally im­pas­sioned de­trac­tors who say they are feral live­stock that should be rounded up and re­moved — maybe even sold as meat.

Strad­dling this di­vide are pub­lic land man­agers whose job is de­fined by the fed­eral law pro­tect­ing the horses and com­pli­cated by com­pet­ing uses of pub­lic lands.

Tax­pay­ers cover the cost of round­ing up horses that the Bu­reau of Land Man­age­ment thinks ex­ceed the land’s graz­ing ca­pac­ity and hous­ing those horses in rented pas­tures or cor­rals — of­ten for decades.

The en­tire fed­eral wild horse and burro pro­gram costs about $80 mil­lion a year, some of which goes to­ward birth con­trol ef­forts aimed at slow­ing the growth rate of herds that oc­cur in 10 states.

That means those who rarely ven­ture out of city lim­its have a stake in what has been a decades-long dis­pute over how to deal with horses that re­pro­duce eas­ily and have few nat­u­ral preda­tors.

Ranch­ers and hunters see them as com­pe­ti­tion for an­i­mals they would rather see on the pub­lic lands — cows and game. These groups, which pro­vide habi­tat en­rich­ment, such as wa­ter, also see the horses as poach­ing on the range im­prove­ments meant for other an­i­mals.

Mean­while, there is the al­lure and iconog­ra­phy of the Old West with its wide open spa­ces and prom­ise of lim­it­less hori­zons. There are few bet­ter sym­bols of that ro­man­tic vision than wild horses, some of which be­come com­fort­able enough with hu­mans to make poignant pho­to­graphic mod­els.

The pub­lic up­roar when Tonto Na­tional For­est of­fi­cials wanted to round up 100 horses from the Salt River reached Congress and re­sulted in a num­ber of elected of­fi­cials tak­ing the side of the horses. Land man­agers were hob­bled.

But land man­agers were not propos­ing to move the horses for the sake of cat­tle or hunters in this case. It was to pro­tect the habi­tat and pub­lic safety. What's more, they said these horses were es­caped live­stock, not his­toric relics.

The re­ac­tion to a pro­posal to move those horses demon­strates how pop­u­lar — and pos­si­bly in­ac­cu­rate — sym­bol­ism of the wild horses re­ally is.

Even though wild horses are of­ten por­trayed as the de­scen­dants of an­i­mals that es­caped from the early Span­ish con­quis­ta­dors, ge­netic test­ing has found only five out of 175 herds tested had genes link­ing them to the Span­ish, ac­cord­ing to Loomis’ re­port­ing.

But the romance re­mains. So does the re­sent­ment. And the cost to the pub­lic.

Fed­eral land man­agers have at­tempted for years to limit herd size through birth con­trol, but avail­able meth­ods are costly and im­prac­ti­cal.

The ten­sion be­tween those who want horses re­moved — whether for en­vi­ron­men­tal, ranch­ing or hunt­ing rea­sons — and the fed­eral law that pro­tects the horses from slaugh­ter has led to a costly and un­kind con­se­quence in which for­merly wild creatures are held cap­tive at pub­lic ex­pense.

The U.S. gov­ern­ment has about 45,000 wild horses and bur­ros that have been taken from the wilds of the West. Adop­tion rates for these an­i­mals are fall­ing.

About 31,000 of these horses are kept on pas­ture rented for an av­er­age of $2 per day per horse. The rest live in cor­rals at a cost of about $5 a day.

The BLM says about an­other 27,000 of the es­ti­mated 55,000 horses and 12,000 bur­ros in the 10 western states should be re­moved. You do the math.

The ping-pong over how to man­age these horses is typ­i­cal of pub­lic land man­age­ment choices and con­flicts.

In­creas­ingly, many peo­ple feel the value of Amer­ica’s wide, open spa­ces for spir­i­tual, emo­tional and recre­ational en­deav­ors ex­ceeds its value for strictly con­sump­tive and ex­trac­tive uses.

The wild horses are a pow­er­ful sym­bol of that con­flict and of our col­lec­tive fail­ure to re­solve it.

PAT SHANNAHAN/THE RE­PUB­LIC

A wild horse runs on U.S. For­est Ser­vice land near the Mo­gol­lon Rim in Ari­zona.

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