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On the Western Plains, a Debate on America's Mustangs

Roundups of free-ranging horses said to be due to drought, but activists are protesting the move
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 18, 2021 8:32 AM CDT
On the Western Plains, a Debate on America's Mustangs
A free-ranging wild horse known as the Old Man is shown on July 14, 2021, as the sun sets near the US Army Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. He was left behind in a July roundup that removed about 300 other horses from the range.   (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

(Newser) – The sound of the helicopter propeller thundered across the horizon as it dipped down toward mustangs dotting the golden brown plain. The horses burst into a gallop at the machine's approach, their high-pitched whinnies rising into the dry air. That helicopter roundup in the mountains of western Utah removed hundreds of free-roaming wild horses, shortly before the Biden administration announced it would sharply increase the number of mustangs removed across the region. It's an emergency step that land managers say is essential to preserving the ecosystem and the horses as a megadrought worsened by climate change grips the region, per the AP. "What we're seeing here in the West gives some insight into a new norm," says Terry Messmer, a professor at Utah State University who studies wild horse management. More on the controversial practice:

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  • Who's in charge? The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees almost a quarter-billion acres of public land, primarily in the West, is tasked with managing the wild horse population. It's planning to remove some 6,000 horses, mostly from Nevada, Oregon, Wyoming, and Colorado, by October—a 50% increase from last year. Eventually, land managers say they'll need to cut the number of wild horses by two-thirds to keep things in balance.
  • Where the horses are sent: Horses that are captured are held in government corrals and pastures mostly in the West and Midwest before they're made available for public adoption. Some also end up being used by law enforcement entities such as the US Border Patrol, or go to prison inmate programs, where they're tamed for future use.
  • Is it really about the drought? The removals are adding fuel to long-standing conflicts with activists for the animals, who say the US government is using the drought as an excuse to take out horses in favor of cattle grazing. "It's really unfortunate the Biden administration continues to scapegoat the horses while giving a pass to livestock that have a greater impact on public lands," says Suzanne Roy of the American Wild Horse Campaign.
  • What activists want to do: Leave the horses on the range and instead administer fertility treatments to limit the size of the herd without roundups that can be costly and tough on the animals. Fertility treatments are used, but new doses are required at least annually and can be difficult to administer because they require horses to be tracked down and darted one at a time, per Messmer.
  • The cost: Eventually, land managers want to double the number of removals, a step they say is essential across 10 Western states in the coming years. Wild horses are federally protected, so the plan, if approved by Congress, would increase costs to an annual high of about $360 million. Without those changes, horses could die of thirst or starvation, they say.
Much more here on the horses' plight. (Read more mustang stories.)

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