Why you should care

Because sustainability isn’t always so simple.

The sun is setting soon on the Centennial Valley in southeastern Wyoming. Rich Wilson revs his four-wheeler up a rock-strewn hill … and into a pasture where hundreds of wild horses are grazing peacefully. Tipping his cowboy hat with the jaunty feather in its band, Rich talks about his daily visits to the herd, from “morning coffee” with the horses to “afternoon cocktails.” At the turn of the decade, Rich and his wife, Jana, answered an advertisement from the federal Bureau of Land Management that asked for volunteers to raise wild horses on private property, so long as they had running water, tree cover and rocky terrain — to soften hooves, Rich says, which otherwise “grow like fingernails.”

Since trading cattle to care for their first horses in 2012, the Wilsons’ Deerwood Station Wild Horse Eco-Sanctuary has become a resounding success. The couple now take 450 guests annually on tours to see the horses. The BLM pays the Wilsons $1.30 per day per horse and has increased the Wilsons’ horse allotment from 300 to 350 (at full capacity, they would be paid roughly $166,000 a year). Plus, in August, it extended their contract for another five years. The pilot program includes two other sites nationwide, and many more private landowners would be joining the effort if administrators had their way, says Mary Jo Rugwell, the BLM state director for Wyoming.

You either have too many [wild horses] or you have a sustainable amount. There’s no silver bullet.

Ryan Yates, lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Foundation

However, stewardship of wild horses on private property is only a fraction of what it will take to solve the nation’s most pressing pest problem. There are more than 70,000 horses on the range — nearly three times the number that regulators say can be managed while preserving the land. An additional 45,000 horses are in federal holding pens, which are at capacity. And while the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 allows agencies to euthanize horses that cannot be housed, adopted or sold, a series of actions in Washington, D.C., have made it illegal for administrators to cull the herd through humane killing. That poses a problem for wildlife management, especially as conditions on the range deteriorate due to overgrazing. “It’s not as if these horses thrive,” says Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, who sued the BLM in hopes of forcing the federal agency to remove wild horses from public lands (a federal appeals court ultimately threw out the lawsuit).

Critics say policies governing wild horse management have become unaffordable and untenable. Adoption efforts have become less effective over time: Only about 3,000 horses are taken each year, compared to nearly 8,000 in the ’70s, Rugwell says. The most reliable fertility control, PZP, is about 90 percent effective, but it can only be used in small herds with the help of scores of volunteers. Research into spay and neuter programs, while generally acceptable for cats and dogs, has generated lawsuits from wild horse advocates (those advocates worry that past studies of such programs have led to accidental horse deaths). Together, those obstacles lead to a simple calculus: Euthanasia is likely the only solution that can stem the swiftly multiplying population. “You either have too many or you have a sustainable amount. There’s no silver bullet,” Ryan Yates, a lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Foundation, told OZY.

The problem will only get worse. The wild horse population doubles every four years, and if left unchecked, officials say, those stampeding herds could pose a real danger to the health of the range, and many of the threatened species within it, such as the greater sage grouse. Many worried folks, including Gov. Mead, are optimistic that the Trump administration will act where Obama did not and create “a plan that is actually able to address appropriate management,” Mead says. Yet Trump also has the BLM in a bind: His administration’s proposed federal budget cuts agency funding by 10 percent, to around $70 million. It costs $50 million alone to care for the horses already under BLM care. “We’re in a really bad spot,” Rugwell says.

The effect is mostly felt in Wyoming, Utah and Nevada. The latter is home to just over 37,000 wild horses, and their existence does not mirror that of the horses in the Wilsons’ sanctuary. “They are starving to death, trampling grasslands, nuking vegetation,” Yates says. Last year, some ranchers who lease BLM lands for their grazing cattle reported for “the first time” that they had received zero allotments, Yates says, in part because of the impact from wild horses (Rugwell says drought and other considerations also factored into decreased allotments).

And yet, public opinion remains staunchly opposed to euthanasia of horses. Advocacy groups tout studies that show four-fifths of Americans are against the practice, and the outcry was swift when a citizen advisory board recommended last September that euthanasia be considered. Since the 2000s, federal legislators have attached bill riders that prevent appropriated funds being used for the slaughter of wild horses and burros. That continues today. “Removing protections to allow the massive slaughter of these magnificent creatures is not the answer,” says U.S. Congresswoman Dina Titus, who represents a Nevada district that includes Las Vegas. In August, she joined two other Democrats in filing an amendment that countered a Republican attempt to legalize euthanasia for horses deemed unadoptable.

The public-perception problem comes into focus in Wyoming, where the Wilsons tend their adopted horses — many of which they’ve named. There’s Spirit, which Rich originally called Pumpkin before a young visitor recognized the animal’s resemblance to the iconic comic book character, and Chip and Joe, two inseparable geldings named for the stars of the HGTV show Fixer Upper. The Wilsons’ sanctuary is “just a little solution to a very big problem,” Jana admits. The hardest thing, Rich says, is contemplating the debate about their backyard that’s going on thousands of miles away in the hallways of power, while their charges graze peacefully amid the hills above their ranch house.

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