The Night Wild Horses Came to Manhattan
The Wild Horse Act act celebrates its 40th birthday, but only a shell of its protections for America's herds remain
As near as anyone today can tell, America's wild horse herds never came anwhere close to Manhattan before they were either slaughtered or confined to dusty rangelands out West. And it is hard to imagine a venue more different from those rangelands than brick-lined Vanderbilt Hall, at the New York University School of Law, where on a rainy Wednesday night a group of 50 or so wild horse enthusiasts met to discuss the past, present and future of the mustang, whom author Deanne Stillman calls "North America's gift to the world."
Yet there we were. Among others, there was Dick Loper, the soft-spoken rangeland expert from Wyoming, trying to soothe some of the anger Easterners feel about the way wild horses are treated out West. There was Ross MacPhee, from the American Musuem of Natural History, come to remind the audience that the horse is a native species. And there was Deniz Bolbol, communications director for the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, who has chronicled some of the recent abuses America's mustangs have endured.
Sponsored by NYU's Environmental Law Journal and its Environmental Studies Program, the legal forum "Managed To Extinction?" was designed to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, the federal measure signed into law on December 15, 1971 by President Richard Nixon. At the time, Nixon cited Henry David Thoreau -- "We need the tonic of wilderness" -- when he pledged to protect America's wild horses from the human forces arrayed against them. Those were the days.
Forty years later, the Wild Horse Act is a shell of what it once was and was supposed to be. Weakened by subsequent amendments, beseiged by politicians who are emboldened by lobbyists for the ranching industry, and administered by a distracted federal agency which is captive to that industry, the act is what one panelist called a "thumb in the dike" against the political, economic and cultural realities of our time. If Velma Bronn Johnston -- also known as "Wild Horse Annie"-- were alive today she'd be disgusted at the perversion of her life's work.
The discussion Wednesday evening alternated between an ersatz Occupy Wall Street session -- "Americans stand up!" one audience member practically shouted -- and a reality check from the panelists, some of whom sounded positively war weary for having fought so long on behalf of the horses. The consensus? "Science is not governing things," McPhee said. "The law is not governing things. Power and politics control." Hey, all you global warming tribunes out there: sound familiar?
Sadly, no representatives of the Bureau of Land Management were present. Federal officials were invited to provide balance to the panel but they hemmed and hawed in responding before deciding, at the last minute, not to come. Ed Roberson, Assistant Director of the BLM, told organizers last week that the Bureau believed the Forum was "unbalanced by designed" because of its title and its "list of invited panelists who predominantly have a negative stance regarding the BLM's management of wild horses and burros."
By refusing to provide the balance forum organizers sought, the Bureau then refused to participate because of a lack of balance on the forum. The dodge. The refusal to confront opponents in honest debate. The unwillingness to be accountable to taxpayers. These are all classic ways in which bureaucracies sustain themselves, perpetuate their power, and avoid making the tough choices that are supposed to make government work well. The Bureau's absence Wednesday is a perfect symbol for its failed stewardship of the horses.
The BLM thought the session would be a two-hour diatribe against its policies and practices. But there was a great deaI of talk about potential solutions. Some wild horse advocates say that "non-hormonal fertility control" would help control horse populations so that livestock ranchers would have less cause to complain. Others say that ranchers should be allowed to voluntarily retire their "allotments" of public land so that more can be given back to the herds. Everyone agreed there should be more dialogue. And the Bureau missed it all.
So did the ranchers, the true adversaries of the horses. They, too, were invited to New York to offer their assessment of the Wild Horse Act at its 40th birthday. But they do their talking mostly in court these days. The Rock Springs Grazing Association, for example, filed a lawsuit earlier this year asking a federal judge in Wyoming to get rid of all of the wild horses in Sweetwater County, in the southern part of the state. The losers talk, I guess, and the winners walk all over the horses a federal law was designed to protect.