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Wild Horses in Need of Stable Home - federal program pays ranchers to keep excess animals for the rest of their lives

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  • Teresa Binstock
    Wild Horses in Need of Stable Home A federal program pays ranchers to keep excess animals for the rest of their lives. The problem is the herds are increasing.
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 1, 2004
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      Wild Horses in Need of Stable Home
      A federal program pays ranchers to keep excess animals for the rest of
      their lives. The problem is the herds are increasing.

      By Martha Mendoza and Angie Wagner
      Associated Press Writers
      August 1, 2004

      OSAGE COUNTY, Okla. -- On the Oklahoma plains, where the tall grass and
      flowing creeks provide refuge for ragged and graying wild horses,
      rancher John Hughes keeps burial pits ready for the ones too weak to
      survive another winter.

      No matter how many horses Hughes buries, he doesn't have to wait long
      for another trailer full of live ones to rumble down the road.

      There are always more. Capacity here is 2,000 horses, a number that
      Hughes is always close to, and today there are 15 more than that.

      These are the legendary wild horses of the American West -- for some a
      living symbol of America's natural strength and beauty, for others a
      feral pest that has overpopulated dwindling public lands.

      The horses of this aging herd, and many like them, represent a growing

      They are old -- 15 years on average -- and unwanted, but sent to this
      retirement home for horses by a public that demands their protection,
      one that comes at a hefty price.

      They've taken a long, expensive journey across the country to arrive at
      their new home. Here, on a ranch outside Bartlesville, they live out
      their days on 18,000 acres of grass, ponds and creeks.

      This year, the federal government is spending about $17,500 each day to
      feed wild horses too old to adopt out. Some will live more than 30 years.

      There are too many horses, so many that even adoptable ones live with
      the aging horses.

      "These horses are truly a great story of institutional resistance," said
      Pat Shea, former Bureau of Land Management director. He struggled under
      the Clinton administration to control and manage the wild herds. "No one
      has the gumption to actually deal with them."

      Here's the problem: More than 20,000 wild horses and burros have
      accumulated in recent years in government corrals and sanctuaries. About
      36,000 more roam public space managed by the Interior Department's BLM,
      competing with cattle for food, stressing the ecosystem, reproducing at
      a rate that can double their population every four years and facing few
      natural predators.

      Taxpayers are being asked to pick up the bill, which is increasing
      rapidly. In 2000 -- when the total wild horse and burro population was
      about 51,000 -- the program cost about $21 million. In its current
      budget request -- with 36,000 horses on the range and 20,000 in holding
      pens and sanctuaries -- the BLM is asking for $42 million. That level of
      funding, said BLM officials, needs to be permanent.

      "It's just dealing with all those numbers of horses," said Jeff Rawson,
      group manager of the BLM's National Wild Horse and Burro Program.

      Federal efforts to manage the herds, as mandated by the 1971 Wild
      Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, have been historically unsuccessful.
      Over the years, managers and wild horse and burro advocates have
      proposed an array of solutions.

      One plan, to round up excess horses and adopt them out for about $125 a
      horse (the cost to taxpayers was about $1,400 each) led to thousands
      being sent to slaughterhouses in the 1980s and early 1990s, where they
      were sold for a profit and processed for human consumption in Europe.

      Restrictions enacted in 1997 now require adopters to sign an affidavit
      that they don't plan to sell an adopted animal for slaughter, and
      adopters must keep the horse for a year before they can receive a title.
      That has reduced the number eventually reaching the slaughterhouse to
      about 600 a year, according to the attorney representing the two
      remaining horse slaughterhouses in the United States.

      Another plan, to use a birth control vaccine on wild mares, is working,
      but has only been given to about 1,500 horses since 1992. The two-year
      vaccine is still being studied, but the BLM would rather use a four-year
      vaccine, which is being developed.

      A third option, Internet bidding for the horses, is being used by a
      limited number of potential adoptees.

      The BLM has begun studying a fourth option: a pilot program in Wyoming
      where two ranchers took about 30 wild horses each in exchange for a
      one-time payment of $1,800 a horse. The program could expand to more
      ranchers, but the BLM currently has no money for that.

      The Wyoming ranchers won't get rich on the program. They were paid
      $1,800 a horse, but the animals, already 10 to 12 years old, could live
      20 more years.

      Other solutions that never took off include using computer-chip ear tags
      to track wild horses and euthanizing excess animals.

      Adoptions are still done, and a handful of prisons in the West have
      partnered with the BLM to have inmates train the animals. After
      training, the horses have a much better chance of being adopted by
      private individuals.

      But for now, wild horse and burro managers are shifting their focus to
      sanctuary. Sanctuaries, or long-term holding facilities, cost less than
      holding horses in corrals and converted feedlots like the BLM did until
      around 1988. But there are so many horses, the BLM needs more sanctuaries.

      "They're the only effective tool we have right now, but they're very
      costly," Rawson said.


      Historians say more than 2 million wild horses roamed the United States
      at the turn of the 20th century, some of them descendants of horses
      brought by Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500s. Others are the
      offspring of farm, cavalry, ranch and mining animals that escaped or
      were turned loose on public lands.

      As cattle boomed, competition for grazing land prompted ranchers -- as
      well as hunters and "mustangers" -- to gather, and often randomly shoot
      the wild horses.

      In the 1950s, Nevada's Velma Johnston, dubbed "Wild Horse Annie,"
      started a letter-writing campaign, predominantly among schoolchildren,
      to save the animals.

      "Seldom has an issue touched such a responsive chord," reported
      Associated Press in July 1959.

      That lobbying effort continues today, Shea said.

      "The horse-protection people have got members of Congress beaten about
      their heads and shoulders by 14-year-old girls who feel these horses are
      their own," he said. "When I was BLM director, the first time something
      adverse happened to a horse, I must have gotten 500 e-mails from girls
      around the world telling me I was a bad person."

      In 1971, when poachers had reduced the estimated wild horse and burro
      population to about 25,000, President Nixon outlawed hunting and killing
      of the animals and designated them as natural resources.


      The law, although well-intentioned, has proved impossible. The BLM has
      never had what it calls an "appropriate management level" of horses on
      the range, meaning the number of horses the land can support as
      determined by the government.

      Now, the BLM says it's as close as it has ever been to achieving that.
      It hopes to trim the herd of 36,000 wild horses nationwide to 26,000 by

      To do that means rounding up horses and sending even more into
      sanctuaries in the Midwest, where ranchers who won competitive contracts
      are paid between $1.22 and $1.30 per horse a day to keep them in

      Today, seven ranches -- four in Oklahoma and three in Kansas -- keep
      about 13,600 wild horses. That's almost as many horses as remain on the
      range in all Western states except Nevada and Wyoming.

      The BLM plans to open up to four more sanctuaries.

      But is this what the act intended, to keep so many horses in a
      never-ending welfare system?

      "We're dealing with an animal population," Rawson said. "It's not
      something you get to a point and walk away."

      The BLM wanted to get 10,500 horses off the range this year, but only
      3,400 were gathered before the horse and burro program ran out of money
      for roundups. The BLM still hopes to round up 6,000 horses this summer,
      Rawson said.

      Critics say the program is just a numbers game to the BLM, a constant
      cycle of removing horses from the range and shipping them to various
      facilities. Some horse advocate groups even accuse the BLM of trying to
      get rid of herds because they want to destroy the wild horse program.

      "It's ridiculous," said Andrea Lococo, Rocky Mountain coordinator for
      the Fund for Animals. "I don't think this agency really wanted to manage
      wild horses. They've done a really pitiful job from the get-go."


      A few miles outside Bartlesville, John Hughes climbs into his pickup and
      makes the rounds to check on his wild horses. He used to have cattle on
      these endless acres of land, but business was changing and he needed a
      more stable income.

      In 1988, he received a BLM contract to keep the horses on his Oklahoma
      ranch. This year, he will receive $912,500 from the government to house
      them. He fertilizes grass, feeds the horses alfalfa hay in winter, makes
      sure his fences are intact and buries a horse when it dies.

      He has another contract to keep 2,000 wild horses on a second ranch and
      still keeps cattle on leased ranches.

      "I love the cattle business, but it requires a large amount of capital.
      This is a great combination for us. There's no question about it,"
      Hughes said. "This gives us steady income."

      Taking wild horses has also been good for Wyoming ranchers Ben and
      Pauline Middleton, who house 28 horses at their rural ranch.

      "It sounds like a good, win-win deal for everybody," Pauline Middleton
      said. "The horses are certainly happier when they're out of the corral.
      We felt we were adequately paid."

      Last year, 550 people asked to review the BLM's contracts for two
      sanctuaries before they went out to bid; 18 people submitted bids. The
      horses in Osage County, all geldings, are considered unadoptable because
      they are too old.

      Hughes, his white hair peeking out from his cowboy hat, drives up close
      to a group of horses gathered near his ranch house. A brown and white
      horse, No. 0675 branded into his left hip, stops, glances at two fellow
      geldings. They turn away, manes bouncing as they pound the earth. Here,
      they eat all they want, drink from the ponds and creeks, and never worry
      about starving.

      "They have a little easier life here," Hughes said.

      He does his job and pays little attention to the politics of the wild
      horse program.

      "A rancher in Oklahoma doesn't know anything about the BLM," he said.

      Sanctuaries are always full or close to it.

      "They're beautiful on the range. They really are," said Larry Johnson, a
      member of the Wild Horse and Burro Program Advisory Board, a panel that
      advises the BLM on horse management.

      "You can't fault a public for wanting to protect that resource. It's the
      right thing to do, but at the same time, the public has to be willing to
      pay for it."

      Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times

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