Grace Kuhn: Time to stop inhumane wild horse roundups using helicopters

Poll shows that most Americans, regardless of party, oppose this method of controlling wild horses

(Lisa J. Tolda/The Reno Gazette-Journal via AP, File) In this January 2004 file photo, the Bureau of Land Management uses a helicopter for gathering 251 wild horses from the Lahontan Herd Management Area in Nevada.

The images you see in newspapers and on TV are intense: horses running for their lives, clouds of dust kicked up and menacing helicopters looming overhead.

There’s nothing cool or heroic about chasing down traumatized animals with a terrifying machine. In fact, three-quarters of Americans say that it’s time to end this cruel, dangerous, and pointless practice, which costs taxpayers millions of dollars each year.

A new poll released by the American Wild Horse Campaign shows that 74% of Americans, regardless of political affiliation, oppose helicopter roundups of wild horses and burros.

Additionally, 75% of Americans oppose the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s plans to round up and remove 19,000 of these iconic animals from their designated habitats over the next year. And 88% of Americans want our nations federally protected wild horses and burros protected.

It’s no wonder that most Americans don’t like helicopter roundups: They almost always result in the severe injury and death of animals. Broken necks and legs are common in roundups, as are horses dying from the stress of being chased to exhaustion.

Nevada Rep. Dina Titus last month introduced a bill (H.R. 6635) to ban the practice after witnessing recent news coverage in which a helicopter was used to chase a colt with a broken leg.

Another member of Congress, Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen, has been so dismayed by the cruel treatment of mustangs and burros that he’s called on BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to suspend all roundups completely until certain much-needed reforms are made. And, last June, more than 30 members of Congress called on BLM to halt its Adoption Incentive Program after a New York Times exposé revealed wild horses adopted via the program are being funneled into the slaughter pipeline and are at risk of being exported to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada.

These calls come at a time when the BLM has accelerated roundups in an attempt to reduce wild populations an estimated 86,000 animals down to fewer than 27,000 — about the same number that existed when Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971 to protect these animals because they were “fast disappearing.” The BLM, 51 years later, is dramatically increasing the number of wild horses and burros confined to government holding facilities, straying far from public opinion.

This spectacularly unpopular practice also comes at an incredibly high cost to U.S. taxpayers. According to federal records, the BLM has spent $517 million for off-range holding facilities in the last 10 years. And the agency’s current roundup plans are expected to cost the American public an estimated $1 billion over the next five years.

There is a better way. BLM could use fertility control vaccines instead of relying on roundups. It’s a more cost-effective and humane way to manage wild horses. It’s also supported by the National Academy of Sciences. The PZP vaccine prevents pregnancy and is administered to mares by darting without harming the horses or the surrounding environment.

PZP costs only about $220 per treatment, all costs included, while removing just one wild horse from the range and keeping it in a cramped corral for life is upwards of $50,000. Yet, the BLM has failed to invest as much as it should in fertility control, partly due to pressure from the livestock industry, which benefits so greatly from the status quo.

Before going further down the road to rounding up more wild horses than ever before, the BLM should pause and consider what is best not only for the animals it is charged to preserve and protect but also for the U.S. taxpayers footing the bill.

It’s hard to find anything these days that Democrats and Republicans agree on, but they are clearly on the same page on this: We need to do better by our nation’s wild horses.

Grace Kuhn | American Wild Horse Campaign

Grace Kuhn is the communications director for the American Wild Horse Campaign and an avid traveler to Utah public lands.