The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has done Americans a huge favor. It has asked us to think.
This is a disconcerting challenge. Here we have been rattling around in our various ideological boxes, with positions printed on every surface that we can turn to when an issue comes up. Now BLM is making that tough.
Perhaps it is appropriate that the mustang, the wild horse that touches so many romantic chords in the American psyche, should be the agent of this challenge. A law passed in 1971 commanded that free-roaming mustangs and burros be protected and preserved. Now a crisis is looming due to overpopulation and drought.
BLM is running out of ideas about how to handle this, and the staff came up with what may well be an unprecedented government solution to the problem. They have turned to the public and simply asked, “What should we do?” They have pledged $1.5 million to pursue the most effective solution anybody can come up with.
To get a bead on the challenge, I am suggesting that readers imagine an exchange between a very calm and patient BLM spokesman and a room full of agitated activists (A) determined to save the mustangs.
A: What I want to know, first of all, is how you let this situation get out of control.
BLM: Our charge under the law passed in 1971 was to preserve and protect mustangs and burros, and we have done that. In fact, we have done that so well that they have overpopulated. We now have 40,000 roaming on land that can support only about 26,000.In temporary corrals and pastures, we have another 60,000 animals.
A: Then you have violated the spirit of the law. The spirit of the law required you to let them roam freely. When you round them up with helicopters and put them in pens, you traumatize and even injure them. This is unconscionable.
BLM: We only do this out of necessity, when they are running out of food and water or destroying range land.
A: Why don’t you just get food and water out to them on the land?
BLM: That would take manpower, equipment, holding tanks, and funding we don’t have basically to provide for animals on 31.7 million acres.
A: Why don’t you ask Congress for the money?
BLM: Congress is trying to cut back on spending and recently refused to fund inspectors for slaughter houses that dispose of unwell and unwanted horses. The well-being of mustangs and burros is very low on their list of priorities right now.
A: I’m glad slaughter houses aren’t allowed. It’s inhumane.
BLM: Is letting horses and burros die of thirst and starvation humane? Most of the land where the horses and burros roam is in Nevada, and the drought is so severe there that 10 counties have been named as disaster areas. Eleven states in the West are suffering drought conditions.
A: This is temporary, just a cycle. It will rain again.
BLM: And when and if it does, grazing will improve and breeding will increase. At current procreation rates on the open ranges, we would theoretically have 145,000 animals there by 2020. This is impossible.
A: Well, why don’t you give them birth control?
BLM: Our best option is a pharmaceutical that has to be injected every year. Can you imagine how complicated it would be to track every mare, decide which would be allowed to breed, and annually treat the others? You’re vastly complicating our responsibility and at great cost.
A: Yeah, it would be like domesticating wild mustangs and burros. Why don’t you start a mustang and burro adoption thing?
BLM: We’ve tried that, and it was another reason for the roundups you criticize. The interest has waned, though. There were almost 10,000 adoptions in 1995, but that number has now dropped to below 3,000.
A: People didn’t want bucking broncos?
BLM: You’re joking, but you’ve got a point. Wild mustangs are wild, after all, and they can be dangerous. They’re very difficult to train. It takes tremendous skill and patience and time.
A: Buck Brannaman, the horse whisperer, could do it.
BLM: True, he’s kind of a genius, and we’d need a hundred of him. But the fact is that horse ownership is in decline. The cost of corn and hay and unemployment have caused breed registrations to drop 50% since 2007. And wild mustangs hardly qualify as recreational horses.
A: Well, what if you do something like a “Mustang Adoption” in name only? I mean, you don’t get the horse, you just send in a check monthly to take care of it.
BLM: At the low end of the scale, an adoption would cost about $40 a month for feed, and that’s for a horse in a pasture. And how long is anybody going to be willing to do this? Horses live longer than 20 years, you know. And there are countless reasons why the price of feed could go through the roof. Anyway, we’re not set up to do that kind of thing.
And another thing. We let cattle graze on our land too, and horses eat twice as much as they do and tear up the ground worse. Our ranchers in some places are furious about the over-grazing.
A: Well, let them take their cattle somewhere else.
BLM: We have leases with them. It’s not that simple. And people can eat cattle. You can’t eat horses.
A: Unless we have slaughter houses, right?
BLM: That’s a moot point. We can’t have slaughter houses unless they’re federally inspected.
A: I don’t like that. It’s government interference.
BLM: Well, it’s for the protection of the animals, the environment, and the end-user of any meat.
A: What about the pharmaceuticals in the meat?
BLM: Wild burros and mustangs aren’t treated with pharmaceuticals, assuming that we won’t do the birth control thing.
A: So we’re back to the need for a slaughter house?
BLM: I didn’t say that. What I’m saying is that we have a huge overpopulation problem that will result in animals dying tragically–sooner rather than later if drought in the West persists and deepens. I’m here to ask what you think we should do about this.
A: I just hate this! This should not be happening! What caused this?
BLM: A law caused it, and it was inspired by compassion because wild mustangs and burros were actually being abused and killed. What’s up now is the law of unintended consequences.
A: Well, we haven’t come up with a solution.
BLM: And we never will unless we do two things. One is to start thinking out of the box, and another is to learn how to think way, way, way down the road. That law was passed more than 40 years ago. We need to think 40 years ahead.
A: I won’t even be alive then.
BLM: So you’re telling me you don’t care whether there are any mustangs alive then either?
A: No. I care.
BLM: Then we need to do something.