KBR Wild Horse and Burro News

  Is the WHB Advisory Board out of touch with reality
or are they facing the cold, hard facts?

Story date: September, 1998

The following report appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune:

RENO, Nev. -- If a new advisory board recommends it, Bureau of Land Management Director Pat Shea says he would agree to euthanize "unadoptable" wild horses that are removed from overgrazed Western rangeland.

Shea acknowledged Monday that BLM employees killing unwanted wild horses would be a public relations "nightmare," but said the romanticized notion of free-roaming mustangs must be checked by the reality of too many horses destroying public lands.

"Are we going to run these animals as a livestock operation and manage it like a rancher would, or are we going to have wilderness and let the natural predators take care of the problem?" Shea said at the opening of a national Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board meeting. "We've done a little here and a little there, and that makes for a foul soup."

Whether to kill unwanted, excess mustangs was only one unsavory ingredient in the mix Monday, as Shea and members of the newly established board heard from three independent fact-finders -- a certified public accountant who looked at the BLM's inventory process, a veterinarian who assessed herd health and the editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, who analyzed BLM's response to critical national press accounts of wild-horse management.

The three delivered a long list of problems with the federal wild-horse program, which costs taxpayers about $17 million annually, including:

  • There is no accurate count of how many wild horses roam public lands, with BLM offices using outdated figures, neglecting to collect medical information and counting horses visually, which can result in a margin of error between 7 percent and 60 percent.

  • The agency doesn't keep track of how many times a horse is shipped to public adoptions around the country, with some un-adoptable horses becoming "frequent fliers" and constantly moving from adoption to adoption, sometimes losing 200 to 300 pounds because of travel stress.

  • BLM officials went off "half-cocked" in attempting to discredit an Associated Press investigation last year by issuing erroneous press releases and adopting a bunker mentality that ignored the issue of failed stewardship.

  • BLM is as much as five years behind in transferring legal title to wild horses adopted by members of the public, and has no method to track whether people have adopted more than the legal limit of four horses.

  • Wild-horse populations are nearly double what the forage on public rangeland can feed yet public demand to adopt the horses has waned, partly because of an outbreak of a disease called "strangles."

High-Tech Solutions: Ideas being considered to remedy the problems include using computer-chip ear tags to track wild horses and conducting wild-horse adoptions over the Internet to meet demand.

But the dilemma of too many wild horses -- many of which are more than 10 years old and not desirable by adopters -- dominated much of the debate of the board, which is charged with helping Shea fix the ailing program.

"These horses are legends and we need to keep them alive," said board member Naomi Tyler of Boise, who 16 years ago adopted an "un-adoptable" wild horse that became a national champion endurance racehorse. "We should not treat them as rodents and just get rid of the excess rodents. People want these horses."

BLM Wild Horse Program Leader Tom Pogacnik said the public wants younger horses, no older than 9, because they are easier to break. The older horses removed from the range are not popular with adopters, so BLM has been putting them in "sanctuaries" where they are fed and cared for.

"But some of those horses are 38 years old," said Shea, noting cost of care can run $900 a year.

'Put Him Down': "That's crazy," added Arizona rancher Fred Burke, a board member who served on an earlier advisory board that recommended closure of the wild-horse sanctuaries. "The best thing we could do for that horse is put him down. We can't afford to send him to an old-timers rest home to die."

Dawn Lappin of Wild Horse Organized Assistance was stunned that BLM was keeping infirmed horses alive when there was unanimous agreement the humane solution would be euthanization.

"How these horses ended up on a refuge when they should have been destroyed is beyond me," she said.

But Shea said many in the BLM are unsure if they have authority to kill old, unwanted horses. And it's doubtful an urbanized public or Congress would understand the reason why.

"Americans care how the horses die and they think they care what happens to the horse's body after it dies," said Matthew Mackay-Smith, a veterinarian and medical editor of an equine magazine whom Shea asked to consult the board. "But death is meaningless to a horse. It only understands the moment."

Leaving horses to starve on an overgrazed range is "absolutely criminal" compared with a quick bullet to the head, said Mackay-Smith.

"Obviously, I would oppose the wholesale slaughter of these animals," said Shea. "In a 1992 study on this problem, the fifth and final alternative was to euthanize unwanted horses. If the advisory board comes to me with that recommendation, I will accept that."


Email Pat Shea at pshea@wo.blm.gov

Email Bruce Babbitt at Bruce_Babbitt@ios.doi.gov

Email President Clinton at president@whitehouse.gov

Please send a courtesy copy of your comments to our #1 wild horse advocate at BLM:
Maitland Sharpe at msharpe@wo.blm.gov

Here is our response to the issue.

Here is Maitland Sharpe's response to our letter.


Clearly euthanasia is a legitimate management tool as spelled out in the act. Howver, BLM cannot "destroy healthy, unadoptable wild horses or burros in the care of the Bureau or its contractors." That wording is straight out of the BLM appropriations Act for 1998. It has been in the BLM appropriations acts every year since 1982. What all that means is that unless Congress changes the wording in the appropriations bill at some time in the future, the BLM cannot destroy horses simply because they are "unadoptable" regardless of what they want to do to save money.

Based on that, I would think that the place to put the pressure is on members of congress, especially those on the appropriations committee, so that this wording remains a part of the BLM appropriation.


For those of you who are concerned but do not have the addresses of your representatives, click here for links you can use to obtain mail, telephone and EMAIL addresses.

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