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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Wild Horses

Air Date: Week of

The Bush administration is planning to remove half the wild horse herds from public lands in the West. Commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg argues the horses are fundamental to the country’s landscape and history, and should be left alone.


CURWOOD: Another sign of the vanishing old west, wild horses. Ranchers call the horses a menace. The federal government is planning to round up nearly half the herds for adoption. But animal welfare advocates say many of the animals will be slaughtered instead. Commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg explains what's at stake.

KLINKENBORG: A few summers ago, I watched a band of wild horses in the mountains above Lovell, Wyoming. They came and went, grazing and bickering, always keeping a possible horizon in mind, just in case they wanted to gallop over it, and out of human sight.

I've seen a lot of horses. But standing on the slopes of Pryor Mountain, I realized that this was the first time I had ever seen them moving in the natural family groupings they'd form in the wild: a stallion, and a band of mares and foals. The chance to see wild horses means a chance to see just how bitterly contested their very existence is. Nearly everyone who comes near them is an advocate, or an opponent, or trying desperately to straddle the fence.

The advocates range from practical horse people to the farthest fringes of animal protection circles; people who wouldn't dream of training a horse, much less actually getting on its back and riding it. The people who resent the wild herds tend to be mostly ranchers who hold large leases of public land through the Bureau of Land Management.

The BLM has tried unsuccessfully to accommodate both sides. For years, it's conducted wild horse roundups to keep populations at a level acceptable to ranchers. The roundups have nearly always been controversial. They can be brutal to the animals. And the Bureau's Wild Horse Adoption Program is, at best, a mixed success. People have a hard time making sense of a tame horse. And most Americans have no idea just how wild a wild horse really is.

The old rationale at the BLM was to keep wild horse populations stable. The new plan is to cut them in half, from some 46,000 animals to 24,000. Some ranchers complain that the horses are hard on fences, and native vegetation, and water sources. Some say that these are animals that no one who knows horses would want to buy anyway. All these arguments boil down to the fact that nobody really makes money from them. Unlike elk, they can't be hunted for sport. And they're too remote for tourism.

It would be one thing if this were private land in question. But the vast majority of wild horses live on BLM land in Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Montana and Oregon. Ranchers hold low-cost leases on this land. But it's public land. And the public deserves a say in how the wild horses are managed.

Most of the horses in America have owners. That's what domestication means. But it makes it hard for many people to think of wild horses as truly wild. Wild is a word that implies native. And these horses weren't native to America. But when Americans pushed westward in the 19th century, the territory was filled with the descendants of Spanish horses brought here in the 16th century. They're as emblematic of that time and place as bison are. Now, wild horses live only in the farthest corners of the west. We need to keep room for them there.

[MUSIC: Peter Gabriel, "San Jacinto," SECURITY (Geffen - 1984)]

CURWOOD: Verlyn Klinkenborg writes about the rural life for The New York Times.



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