Ginger Kathrens: Wild horses groomed as scapegoats for public land destruction

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Ginger Kathrens, director of the Cloud Foundation, left, speaks at a protest and press conference in front of the downtown Marriott hotel where Utah officials are hosting a wild horse conference Aug. 23, 2017. The advocates were not allowed into the conference and believe the forum is for promoting the slaughter of wild horses and burros that roam the West's public lands.

A spending bill passed by the U.S. Senate on Oct. 31 offers the Bureau of Land Management a $35 million appropriation to reduce wild horse and burro populations in Western states by two-thirds.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States laud the extra funding as a measure to prevent slaughter by funding a “non-lethal” fertility control program, but there are serious flaws in this thinking.

To date, no funding is specifically designated for humane, targeted fertility control, an approach supported by the vast majority of wild horse advocates.

This means BLM can spend the allocated funds to pursue its long-term goal: rounding up and removing wild horses to extinction levels, perpetuating this never-ending cycle at enormous expense to the American public. This is wild horse persecution, not protection.

BLM Acting Director William Perry Pendley has pulled no punches. Speaking recently to the Society of Environmental Journalists in Fort Collins, he denounced wild horses and the “havoc” they cause as the biggest “existential threat” facing public lands. His absurd comment reflects a disingenuous and deeply biased policy approach.

Wild horses occupy less than 12 percent of BLM-managed lands. Livestock graze on 88 percent of BLM lands and vastly outnumber mustangs and burros, thus their impacts are exponentially higher. Why, then, are our horses and burros almost solely blamed for rangeland degradation?

The answer can only be that it’s a diversionary tactic with the objective of distracting the public and Congress from the real threats to public lands: poorly regulated oil and gas drilling, mining, overgrazing by taxpayer-subsidized cattle, the diversion of water resources for these activities and the administration’s gutting of environmental safeguards for wild lands and wildlife.

Our public lands are singed, denuded and devastated by droughts and wildfires associated with global warming. Overuse by for-profit activities have robbed them of their resilience.

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, initiated the BLM plan in collaboration with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, agribusiness groups and two domestic animal welfare organizations with little on-the-range experience. Their “plan” would reduce wild horse and burro herds to below 27,000, a level that, when enacting federal protections in 1971, Congress unanimously agreed was tantamount to their “disappearance from the Western landscape.” It would triple the wild equines warehoused at taxpayer expense, with no financial provision for their long-term safety.

The plan also does not rule out the BLM’s preferred method of “fertility control,” sterilization through a procedure called ovariectomy via colpotomy. The National Academy of Sciences warned against this dangerous surgery due to the high risk of bleeding out, trauma and infection.

Despite losing two legal battles, facing public outcry, and having two universities withdrawing from the experiments, the agency seems determined to push ahead with this inhumane, archaic procedure.

In October, the House and Senate acted without debate, oversight or receipt of the BLM’s overdue annual Report to Congress. Lawmakers were led to believe wild horse advocates supported the plan. Dozens of wild horse and burro defense groups publicly opposed the extinction plan. More than 100 equine and animal welfare organizations signed on to a document proposing alternative solutions for on-range, sustainable management of America’s wild horses and burros.

The bottom line is that our wild horses and burros are facing a smear campaign of epic proportions. They’ve been scapegoated as destroyers of our Western Rangelands so that the true causes of rangeland degradation can take place out of the public eye, and profit can continue uninterrupted and unopposed. Wild horses are, in fact, central to the preservation of public lands. They are the only wildlife species that is defined by the land on which they live. Remove them from the land, and the land will be more vulnerable.

Acting Pendley has long favored selling off federal lands, and the administration is now opening up even more public acreage to oil, gas and mining development.

The writing is on the wall. BLM’s new “management plan” benefits those who seek to further industrialize our public lands and expand publicly subsidized cattle grazing. Congress has a chance to make amends when House and Senate appropriators meet in conference. If we care about the preservation of our public lands, we must insist that they pay attention this time.

Ginger Kathrens is an Emmy-winning producer, cinematographer, writer and editor as well as an award-winning author. She is the founder and executive director of The Cloud Foundation.