LAS VEGAS -- Any wild horse advocates who were hoping for big changes when the Texas cowboy president gave way to the urbanite from Chicago have been sorely disappointed. During the past four years, the number and pace of wild horse roundups have seemingly increased.
Millions of acres that were set aside by federal law to be the permanent home of wild horse herds have been zeroed out, that is, wiped clean of mustangs, though thousands of private cattle have been allowed to remain on the public lands. And each time a roundup operation is undertaken by the Bureau of Land Management, horses are terrorized, injured and killed while running across miles of rocky terrain.
Now comes word of a new -- some say insidious -- plan to remove every single mustang from a gigantic area: the 575,000 acre Sheldon Wildlife Refuge in northern Nevada, along the Oregon line. The government thinks there are less than 1,000 horses in that vast area, but one horse for every 575 acres is one too many, and they all have to go. The irony of removing wild horses from a wildlife refuge is not lost on the mustang advocates, but they're not laughing. That's because unlike mustangs captured by the BLM, these horses will almost certainly end up at a slaughterhouse, and then on the dinner plate of horse flesh fans in France or Japan.
The Sheldon refuge is controlled not by the BLM, but by the Fish and Wildlife Agency, and that agency figures it does not have to abide by the same laws that offer minimal protection to mustangs on BLM land. Both agencies are under the Department of the Interior, so we wanted to ask the head guy, the Secretary of Interior, "What's the deal?" Our I-Team colleague Steve Sebelius interviewed Secretary Ken Salazar via satellite about the roundup.
Sebelius: Why clear the horses from that refuge?
Salazar: You know, Steve, I'm not familiar with that particular issue.
Not familiar with a massive sweep through 575,000 acres of land that his department controls? Why is that not a surprise?
Salazar: I will say that the wild horse and burro challenge has been a huge issue for the U.S. for a very long time. Nevada is ground zero for how we've been trying to deal with that problem. And frankly, there is still a lot of work to be done.
You bet there is, because there are still a few thousand horses out there that haven't been rounded up yet. Secretary Salazar, like most of his top aides in the department, is a cattle rancher, and ranchers have little love for wild horses.
The justification for BLM roundups is often pretty weak. The government sets an arbitrary number of horses the range can support, and it goes after the rest, always making sure to leave private cattle out there to chomp away. But the Sheldon roundup seems even more specious. Ostensibly, Fish and Wildlife says it needs to remove horses to protect the 2,500 antelope living there. But in the next sentence the agency says the antelope have never been better. They've doubled in number while living side by side with the mustangs, which raises an obvious question: Why must the horses be removed? And why do they not remove private cattle instead?
But the truly grim news is this: Fish and Wildlife says it is not governed by the same laws that control BLM. Any horses gathered by BLM must be kept and, if possible, put up for adoption. They're not supposed to be sold. That will not be the case for the Sheldon horses. In fact, it looks like the feds have already found a buyer and, from one report, it looks like this is the same buyer known for shipping thousands of horses to Mexican slaughter plants.
The Sheldon herds include some of the oldest and purest horse lines in the west. Some of those Sheldon horses' ancestors carried American soldiers into battle in World War I. You would think that with all that land up there, and no compelling reason to remove them, that the Sheldon horses deserve something better than to end up on someone's hamburger bun. The Sheldon Wildlife Refuge is also home to a population of bighorn sheep, a non-native species, but there is no move to remove them.
What you can do: Call Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and ask him to instruct the state's Department of Agriculture to work with wild horse advocacy groups to protect the animals on state lands. He can be reached at 775-684-5670 or 702-486-2500.
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