Are We Leading Our Wild Horses to Slaughter?

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As a new book makes clear, Velma Johnston, a.k.a. "Wild Horse Annie," must be rolling over in her grave at the peril thousands of America's mustangs once again face today.

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Wild horses being herded outside Tooele, Utah in February (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

The video below depicts a gruesome roundup in northeastern Nevada of a small band of the nation's wild horses: mustangs who, under federal law and policy, must be protected and managed by the very government agents whose helicopters here terrorize, corral, and injure them. This grim roundup, at the Antelope and Antelope Valley Herd Management Area, occurred in early October. It came just a few days after ProPublica, the non-profit, investigative journalism endeavor, published a damning piece accusing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) of selling captured wild horses to a known horse slaughterer, which is prohibited by law.

Approximately 180 horses were rounded up in the fashion you're about to watch below. (Or not. I would not show this video to my son, who loves horses.) The Obama Administration's Department of the Interior, led by a rancher, says it must reduce the size of the herd in this particularly violent and dangerous fashion to save the horses from drought and the effects of wildfires, and to bring the herd's number "back into balance with other range land resources and uses." The plan this fall is to "gather" thousands of America's wild horses from nearly 20 venues across the American West, and herd them into dirty, unsafe holding pens -- all at taxpayer expense.

As a matter of logic and economics, this makes no sense. The horses cost us practically nothing when they are left alone in the wild. They cost a fortune to trap and hold. And they are being rounded up at a rate much greater than the rate they can be adopted out, even to genuine horse lovers who have the time and space to give them a home. Today in America, there are perhaps 20,000 more wild horses in domestic pens than there are out on the rangeland. Here, then, is a government program that has gone out of its way to create a "welfare" class in America -- and then seen its federal stewards complain about the costs.

As a matter of politics, however, what's being done to our wild horses makes perfect sense. The ranching and livestock industries, long holders of political power in Congress, want the horses off their grazing land, even though "their" land happens mostly to be "your" land, owned by the federal or state government. These forces always have been opposed to the presence of wild horses on the vast checkerboard of Western rangelands. They have never fully accepted the 1971 federal law designed to protect and mange those horses. And, today, amid feckless regulation and Congressional indifference, they typically get their way.

NO REST FOR THE WEARY -- OR THE VICTORS

If there is one thing this election campaign has taught us, and if the past four rancorous years have reminded us of one immutable truth, it is that while change may be inevitable, progress isn't. Those who lose in American politics, those whose ideas are rejected, those whose time has come and gone, rarely go away forever. Instead, they seem always to come back to us, back to the bullhorns, back with renewed vigor, in one form or another; to fight again, to carry the flag for old prejudices or new grievances or some combination of both, to restore whatever old order they want restored.

There is no rest for the weary -- or the victors. So many of the rights and freedoms, securities and protections, rules and regulations won in one generation must be re-won a generation later from reactionary forces seeking a return to the good old days. On some issues, the debate rolls on through the decades; through the centuries, really. The things our parents fought over sooner or later become our fights. Their victories, ours either to defend or to attack; their losses, ours either to lament or to revenge. No matter who wins the coming election, it will be so -- the end to our great national divisions being nowhere in sight.

It's always hard to personify this struggle, and especially to personify it in a way that isn't overtly ideological, but let me now give it a shot. I just finished reading Alan Kania's new book, Wild Horse Annie: Velma Johnston And Her Fight to Save the Mustang, a straightforward and indispensable account of one woman's extraordinary success, 40 years ago, in helping to protect America's wild horses from the human predators surrounding them. What happened to Johnston, and now to the federal law she pushed Congress to pass and President Nixon to sign, shows us why we often have to charge back again over hard-fought ground.

Even when Johnston won, she knew she had not really won. Even with the passage of her landmark law, the 1971 Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, Johnston knew that the industries arrayed against wild horses were not going to give up. She knew the horses were still in danger despite the protections they had just received from Congress. She knew that the BLM was, as ever, aligned closely with the industry it was supposed to regulate. She knew all this, and she was right. The value of Kania's work, apart from his tender view of his subject, is that it shows us, relentlessly, how law can be and is subverted by political forces.

THE 'KILLERS'

Today, despite the earnest protestations of wild horse advocates, the Obama Administration has done what so many of its predecessors have done in the past 40 years: placed into mortal peril the wild horses in its trust. In the past 20 years especially, the Bureau of Land Management has acceded to the wishes of the livestock lobby and taken tens of thousands of wild horses off public land. As near as anyone can tell, the Obama Administration has on our behalf received nothing in return from the grazing lobby, not even the promise of higher lease rates to ease the perception that the American people are victims of the dodge of "welfare ranching."

So there are tens of thousands of new "welfare" horses being warehoused at the expense of taxpayers, while livestock and ranching industry operators enjoy the benefits of having their cattle or sheep graze on huge swaths of public land at less than market rates. For the humans involved, it's a sweetheart deal: fewer wild horses drinking less water! For the horses, even with laws that purport to preclude their sale into slaughter -- their sale to what horse advocates call the 'killers' -- it's a looming catastrophe. Here's how Dave Phillips, in his powerful ProPublica piece, recounts what happened next:

[B]y March [2012], government pens and pastures were nearly full. Efforts to find new storage space had fallen flat. So had most attempts to persuade members of the public to adopt horses. Without a way to relieve the pressure, the agency faced a gridlock that would invite lawsuits and potentially cause long-term damage to the range.

So the BLM did something it has done increasingly over the last few years. It turned to a little-known Colorado livestock hauler named Tom Davis who was willing to buy hundreds of horses at a time, sight unseen, for $10 a head. The BLM has sold Davis at least 1,700 wild horses and burros since 2009, agency records show -- 70 percent of the animals purchased through its sale program.

Like all buyers, Davis signs contracts promising that animals bought from the program will not be slaughtered and insists he finds them good homes. But Davis is a longtime advocate of horse slaughter. By his own account, he has ducked Colorado law to move animals across state lines and will not say where they end up. He continues to buy wild horses for slaughter from Indian reservations, which are not protected by the same laws. And since 2010, he has been seeking investors for a slaughterhouse of his own.

For decades, wild horse advocates have warned anyone who would listen that the mustangs could be slaughtered in this fashion if too many of them were taken too quickly from their native ranges. Now it may be happening. "The BLM is settling the stage for the mass slaughter of captured wild horses," said Suzanne Roy, spokeswoman for the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. "The American people will not tolerate this reprehensible and illegal treatment of America's cherished mustangs." But so far the American people have tolerated it. There is no Velma Johnston to lead the movement.

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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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