For wild horses, paradise lost

Agency reassures activists after new law removes slaughter ban

12:46 PM CST on Sunday, March 13, 2005

By TODD J. GILLMAN / The Dallas Morning News

ROSALIA, Kan. Even in winter, when the Flint Hills are brown and the ranch hands have to put out alfalfa every few days, the view is pure Marlboro Country. Mustangs poke over every ridge, and herds graze and romp.

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It's 50,000 acres of horse heaven, a taxpayer-funded sanctuary for thousands of unwanted wild horses. In summer, the grass comes up to their bellies, so lush they can gain 3 pounds a day.

For three decades, federal law has protected wild horses, even those too old, ugly or ornery to get adopted.

That changed three months ago, when President Bush signed a massive spending bill with a provision tacked on by a Montana senator. For the first time in a generation, the federal Bureau of Land Management has the authority to sell old, unwanted mustangs even if the buyer intends to slaughter them.

Horse lovers are appalled and outraged. Friendly lawmakers have filed bills to reverse the new rule. But animal activists fear that Congress won't act quickly enough to save thousands of these living, whinnying symbols of the Old West.

For all their grace and romance, mustangs compete with cattle, oil and gas drilling, and suburban growth. Unless buyers willing to care for them are found soon, 8,400 mustangs could end up at meatpacking plants in Texas or Illinois.

Among the horses is No. 2739, an auburn mare put out to pasture on the Shadow Seven ranch, an hour east of Wichita, Kan.

She has a straight back, a lush mane and solid muscles. She eased toward the ranch truck one recent crisp day, circling it slowly, bold and curious. She was strutting her stuff, said ranch hand Tim Rogers, hoping someone will take her home.

"Pretty soon she'll have a name and be your friend," he said. "She wants a ride but not to the slaughterhouse."

Congressional ban
Wild horses will still have thousands of acres to roam at the Shadow Seven ranch and other sanctuaries on the tall-grass prairies of central Kansas.

A century ago, 2 million mustangs roamed the American plains. At last count, there were 37,000 on public lands in 10 Western states. The BLM wants to round up 9,000 more, saying that's all the land can support.

Congress banned the commercial sale and slaughter of wild horses in 1971, after a Nevadan known as Wild Horse Annie led a crusade with help from legions of schoolchildren. Since then the BLM has rounded up 203,000 "excess" mustangs. About 6,000 to 7,000 are adopted each year, but the number in captivity has climbed steadily.

About 24,000 mustangs reside at the Shadow Seven and nine other sanctuaries on the tall-grass prairies of central Kansas and northeastern Oklahoma, or at a few short-term holding corrals.

Captive mustangs can live 25 years or more, a few years longer than in the wild. It's an idyllic life, with water and food provided as necessary and veterinarians on call. The cost to taxpayers runs about $465 per year per horse. Add in other costs, and the total tab hits $20 million.

Quiet turnaround

In December, with no debate or hearings, Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., slipped an amendment into a federal spending measure giving the government authority to sell, for any purpose, horses age 10 and older and those that have been put up for adoption three times.

About one in three captive horses is eligible.

The economics are plain enough. Ranchers pay the government $1.43 per month for each head of cattle they graze on public land a fraction of the $50 they might pay on private land. Grazing fees brought the BLM $11.8 million last year.

Federal law sets aside 261 million acres as public land in the West and says the land must be shared by livestock, recreation, wildlife, oil and gas exploration, and wild horses and burros. It's a recipe for conflict, and the BLM is the referee. "Everybody out there has to make room for others," BLM spokesman Thomas Gorey said.

Cattle outnumber wild horses 100-1 on public land, though six years of drought have forced the BLM to trim the numbers of both.

"It's competition for the last blade of grass on public land. It's been a fight for 50 years," said Karen Sussman of Lantry, S.D., president of the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros, one of dozens of groups protesting the new rule.

She and other horse lovers say the creatures are victims of mismanagement, misplaced priorities, bad policies and greed. They raise the specter of mustang burgers and free-range cheval on the menus of Paris and Brussels, Belgium, where horsemeat doesn't carry a stigma and mad cow scares have fueled demand.

"It's such an outrage," Ms. Sussman said. "The wild horse is the icon of our American West."

Cattlemen point out that wild horses are neither endangered nor native; herds can be traced to stallions brought to the Americas by Christopher Columbus and other explorers. Then there are the eating habits: Horses rip grass down to the dirt, making it slow to recover. And they consume far more per head than cows or elk because they don't chew their cud.

"The horses have exceeded the carrying capacity of the range. That's a problem," said Preston Wright, president of the Nevada Cattlemen Association. "We've been complaining about the economic conflict for 30 years."

Mr. Wright says he's not thrilled at the thought of slaughtered horses but blames the BLM, saying the bureau should work harder to find them homes. The love of horses, he said, "is a very emotional thing. ... But I think it's something that tends to get manipulated in this debate."

Agency commitment
For three decades, federal law has protected wild horses, even those too old to get adopted.

BLM officials say they're doing their best to avert any slaughter.

They've appealed to animal rights groups, horse rescue activists and Indian tribes anyone who might take large numbers of unwanted horses and announced the first sale on March 1. A ranch in southeastern Wyoming bought 200 older mares for $50 each. (The adoption fee is $125.)

"We are committed to finding long-term care for these wild horses and burros," BLM director Kathleen Clarke said. "We are working to place as many of these animals as we can in good homes."

Mr. Burns, a former animal auctioneer, said his amendment's point wasn't to send horses to slaughter but to save tax dollars and prod the BLM to trim herds and improve its adoption program. "These animals live in poor conditions that often lead to their deaths, and without proper management, this will continue to happen," he said.

Horse advocates dispute that. They note that twice as many mustangs roamed the range when Congress stepped in to protect them in 1971. They blame the cattle industry's demand for cheap grazing land for the new law.

They've staged protests in Nevada and flooded Congress with letters and calls. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., has filed legislation to repeal the Burns amendment, calling it a "quick and dirty fix" that doesn't solve the ongoing clash of horses and cattle.

Last week, volunteers from a dozen horse groups were in Washington to drum up support for his bill and for another proposal that would ban the slaughter of any horse, wild or domestic, for meat.

It would be hard to overstate their anger at Mr. Burns and the beef industry.

"This is horrendous. It's very unsettling," said Texas animal activist Jennifer Glick of Rowlett. "These animals have been there over 500 years. They're not hurting anyone. Do they deserve to be put into trailers with no water and sent somewhere to have their throats cut and be skinned and dismembered?"

But the National Cattlemen's Beef Association the "Beef, it's what's for dinner" folks welcomed the Burns legislation as long overdue.

"Everything on public lands is about balance. It was never about horses at the expense of everything else," said Jeff Eisenberg, the association's director of federal lands. "The horse welfare groups weren't adopting them. Something had to be done. It was draining the BLM budget."

Texas slaughterhouses
The "excess" mustangs rounded up to live on public lands are branded to track their growing numbers.

Two of the nation's three horse slaughterhouses are in North Texas. Despite a 1949 state ban on butchering horses for human consumption, the Texas plants continue to operate because there is no federal ban, and they sell only to foreign customers, pet food makers and zoos, processing about 50,000 horses per year combined.

Wild horses could end up at these plants, but officials say they're not especially in demand.

"It's a tougher meat," said John Linebarger, a Fort Worth lawyer who represents Beltex Corp. in Fort Worth and Dallas Crown in Kaufman. "The wild horses ... are just not as profitable. They're not as good a horse as the kind that's been taken care of and grain-fed."

The Shadow Seven ranch started taking in wild horses four years ago.

"I wouldn't eat one," said Mr. Rogers, 52, the ranch hand who has spent his adult life there. "Would you eat your dog?"

He and a crew of nine care for 3,687 mustangs. Only 369 of them are deemed adoptable. Few people want an untamed horse older than 5. They're just too stubborn.

Mare No. 2739 is 6 years old.

She's a sorrel. Her number is freeze-branded onto her auburn rump. She was captured in a remote area in central Nevada, the state where more than half of all wild horses live. Home was a dry, roadless tract almost as big as Rhode Island. BLM says the area can hold 400 horses, and it's removed about 2,000 in the last 20 years.

Most descend from Pony Express stock, but at the Shadow Seven, No. 2739 mingles with horses caught across the West paints and Appaloosas, buckskins and palominos, Andalusians and the offspring of escaped cavalry mounts.

A few show the swayed back of old age. Some have homely, mulelike heads. Most are sturdy, sure-footed and elegant. Groups of half-sisters nibble in a rocky creek bed. Captured together a thousand miles away, they'll spend retirement together, for now.

"I'd like to keep 'em here and enjoy 'em and feed 'em," said Mr. Rogers. "But that isn't up to us."

Old law

Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971

"Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West. ... Wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death."

New law

Burns amendment

Allows the sale for any commercial purpose of wild horses 10 and older and those that have been put up for adoption three times. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., inserted the provision in a 3,300-page spending bill signed by President Bush in December.

Proposed law

Bills to protect wild horses, both pending in House committees:

HR297: The bill would restore the ban on commercial sale and slaughter of mustangs. Authors: Reps. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and Ed Whitfield, R-Ky.; 15 co-sponsors.

HR503: The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act would ban horse slaughter for human consumption nationwide. Author: Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y.; 55 co-sponsors.

Todd J. Gillman and staff