The Lasso Tightens Around America's Wild Horses

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With 45,000 or so wild horses in federal control, the Bureau of Land Management selects a "pro-slaughter cattlewoman" to be the public's voice on its advisory board.

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To wild horse advocates, the ones who fret daily over the worsening plight of the American mustang, Montana's Republican former senator Conrad Burns holds a special spot in the pantheon of enablers, cynics, scoundrels and villains who have conspired for generations to endanger the health and safety of the herds. In November 2004, at the last minute, it was then-Senator Burns who inserted into a 3,300-page budget appropriations bill a single-paged rider that amended the 1971 Wild Horse Protection Act so it was legal, once again, to slaughter wild horses.

With the subsequent stroke of President George W. Bush's pen, Burns thus achieved (without any legislative debate) what Wild Horse Annie's Act had specifically sought to prevent. By re-authorizing slaughter, Burns had nurtured the political incentive for the feds to capture and control more wild horses. The economics of that, in turn, helped free up more public/private land for more use by the livestock, oil and mining industries. The free market, in other words, was unleashed upon the horses. They never stood a chance. And they still don't.

The answers come easier not because they are wiser, but because of the absence of any meaningful dissent or discussion about alternatives.

In November 2006, Kurt Brungardt wrote an important essay in Vanity Fair chronicling most of this story. Back then, rather than undertake a meaningful revision to the Wild Horse Act that would restore some spine to the federal legislation, Congress instead effectively banned the slaughter of all horses on American soil. The legislation didn't end the slaughter business that Burns had stimulated, of course. It just outsourced it to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada. Last fall, Congress conceded defeat; now, there's talk that U.S. slaughterhouses may soon be re-opening.

No one knows how many wild horses have been slaughtered since 2004. Today, for now, the Bureau of Land Management is prohibited from selling wild horses to those who would then "knowingly" sell them to slaughter. As slender a reed of protection as that is for the horses, it's actually an improvement from the way it was after Burns first struck. But the current status on slaughter doesn't even purport to answer the bigger question here: What will now happen now, if not eventual slaughter, to the wild horses under federal control?

According to their own figures, the feds now control in pens or fenced pastures at least 45,000 wild horses. Last year, they rounded up over 10,000 wild horses, about the same as the year before . At the same time, however, the government says the number of wild horses roaming free is approximately the same as it was in 2004. Horse advocates believe this latter number is far less than the feds acknowledge but no one knows for sure, which is one reason why the National Academy of Science is currently reviewing the BLM's wild horse policies.

THE BLM AND THE ADVISORY BOARD

Once dubbed one of the five worst senators by Time, Burns is gone from political office. In 2008, after he was tainted by the Jack Abramoff scandal, he lost his reelection bid. What's significant here about his career, however, came before he went to Congress. Wikipedia tells us that Burns was a cattle auctioneer before becoming manager of a livestock expo. He was a farm guy; another farm guy, economically and philosophically opposed to wild horses on public land, who was dictating harmful policy about the horses under color and cover of law.

Burns may be Public Enemy Number One to the wild horse folks. But the Bureau of Land Management (the "Bureau of Livestock and Mining," as it has been called) is not far behind. And here is one reason why. Last Monday, for example, the BLM announced that it had "made selections for three positions on the National Wild Horse and Bureau Advisory Board," a group designed under the 1971 Wild Horse Act to advise the bureaucrats on wild horse policies. One of the BLM's choices for a "public" spot on the Board was Callie Hendrickson.

Here's how the feds described her:

Ms. Hendrickson is Executive Director, White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts, and owner and consultant for E-Z Communications. As executive director of the conservation districts, Ms. Hendrickson has extensive experience in addressing public rangeland health concerns for the Colorado Association of Conservation Districts. Her career is focused on natural resource policy development and education. She has served on the Colorado Foundation for Water Education, Mesa County 4-H Foundation, Mesa County Farm Bureau, and the Mesa County Cattlewomen. Ms. Hendrickson replaces Janet M. Jankura.

Could it be? Yet another farm and livestock soul, purportedly the "public's" voice on the Horse Board, getting a chance for input into wild horse policy? And not just a cattlewoman with an evidently open mind, mind you, but one who seems already to have expressed a great deal of hostility toward the horses? The Cloud Foundation, for example, a leading horse advocacy group, immediately noted that Hendrickson was part of a group which had intervened against it in a lawsuit brought to better protect a free-roaming herd on Colorado's Western Slope.

And the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, another one of the nation's leading horse advocacy groups, formally protested the BLM's inclusion onto the Board of what the AWHPC called a "pro-slaughter cattlewoman." To the BLM, the advocates wrote:

Particularly objectionable is the recent appointment of Callie Hendrickson, an outspoken advocate for horse slaughter and lethal management of America's wild horses, to the "Public Interest" position on the board. At a time when public opinion surveys have reconfirmed the American public's strong opposition to horse slaughter, Ms. Hendrickson's appointment to represent "general public interest" is, frankly, appalling.

Ms. Hendrickson... has a history of anti-mustang positions and in favor of slaughter. In fact, she will be a featured speaker at the United Horsemen summit in Oklahoma, which is being organized to plan strategy for resumption of horse slaughter in the U.S. She has also lobbied for removal of wild horses from public lands; endorsed the destruction of "excess" wild horses and the unlimited sale of captured mustangs for slaughter; testified in favor of anti-wild-horse legislation; criticized wild horse advocates [and] supported legislation to block environmental and animal protection organizations from filing lawsuits (internal links omitted by me).

This kind of political and bureaucratic deck-stacking -- the BLM truly couldn't find a neutral new member for the Board? -- is a recurring theme in the story of these horses. The people who are responsible for their protection and management typically have enormous conflicts of interest against them. The Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, is a Colorado rancher. The governor of Wyoming, Matt Mead, is a rancher. And the beleaguered, old Wild Horse Protection Act is only as sound as the men and women who interpret and implement it.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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