On Colorado Public Lands Day (May 19), we had a lot to celebrate. The unparalleled beauty and richness of our wildlife and wild places move multitudes to get outside, be one with nature and join efforts to preserve such spaces for generations to come. Recently Congressman Jared Polis and Sen. Michael Bennet introduced legislation to protect 96,000 acres along Colorado‘s Continental Divide. These lands, located in the gorgeous White River Forest, are increasingly at risk from human and industrial encroachment. The bill would also create a national historic landmark at Camp Hale to honor the veterans of the storied 10th Mountain Division.
Colorado‘s public lands are home to four magnificent wild horse herds. The Sand Wash Basin, Piceance/West Douglas, Little Book Cliffs and Spring Creek Basin herds benefit from wild horse guardians and fans who work with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to protect them from deadly roundups through reversible birth control and community partnerships. The horses draw tourists from around the world, generating revenue for small towns like Maybell.
These assets are under fire from the Trump administration. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whom many consider the biggest yes-man in the cabinet, has done everything in his power to gut environmental protections, weaken public participation, and expose public lands to accelerated industrial development. Under Zinke, the BLM encourages staff members to wear “vision” badges on their uniforms that depict oil rigs and cattle grazing. The agency culture values loyalty to Zinke and the president above all. Those who try to address climate change, wildlife or public lands protection are silenced and often targeted for removal.
In March, the BLM issued a report to Congress that proposes decimating free-roaming horse and burro herds on western public lands. The BLM aims to slash total wild equine populations to its “appropriate management level” of 26,710 — an average of one horse or burro per thousand acres. The BLM target population is nearly the same as the estimated wild equine population in 1971, when Congress unanimously passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act to keep them from “fast disappearing from the West.”
To reach its goals, the BLM proposes killing or selling for slaughter up to 100,000 mustangs and burros, including tens of thousands now held captive. Remnant herds on the range would be subject to mass sterilization, effectively turning them into zoo animals. The agency rejects fertility control as unfeasible until it reaches its extinction-level goal. Yet the BLM-commissioned National Academy of Sciences report found this method to be the safest and most promising for keeping wild horse populations in balance with rangeland ecology.
Over 100 equine advocate, ecotourist and animal welfare groups released a detailed statement of principles and recommendations to reform BLM‘s costly roundup and removal program by implementing humane, on-range management solutions. Their voices were ignored. The BLM‘s mustang/burro eradication program is incorporated in the administration‘s 2019 budget request.
One may ask, what‘s the connection between wild horses and protecting wild lands? Wild horses are scapegoated so that powerful interests who want to control public lands for commercial gain can divert attention from their takings. Without hard data, the BLM claims that wild horses and burros overpopulate and hurt the “thriving natural ecological balance;” it never examines their beneficial impacts such as spreading seeds, cutting paths through ice, trimming fire-prone vegetation in higher zones. The agency refuses to account for rangeland damage by cows and sheep, which graze its 26.9 million acres by the millions. Too many accept this slick game. In August 2017, a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office took the BLM to task for not assessing livestock impacts.
Sitting back is not an option. Tell your legislators to support the HR 4883/S 2337, the Polis/Bennet public lands legislation, and to keep mustang and burro destruction out of the fiscal year 2019 spending bill. Those who care want public lands and the wild horses that roam there protected, period.