The Man Who Could Save America's Wild Horses

Meet Raul Grijalva, a rumored potential nominee for Secretary of the Interior -- and dedicated friend of the nation's untamed herds.

Representative Raul Grijalva, far left, at the signing of the 2009 Omnibus Public Lands Management Act. Outgoing Secretary Ken Salazar is second from right. (Ron Edmonds/AP)

When Ken Salazar announced his resignation earlier this month as Secretary of the Interior, it set off quivers of speculation among wild horse advocates about who might replace him in the post most important to the fate of the nation's vulnerable herds. Salazar, a longtime Colorado rancher, was never trusted by the wild horse community. Under his direction, the Bureau of Land Management has left the horses more exposed, literally and figuratively, than they've been in decades.

Very quickly, two main streams of thought emerged. Some horse activists worry that President Barack Obama will appoint Washington Governor Christine Gregoire to the post. The National Journal noted glowingly two weeks ago that as "a former head of Washington state's Department of Ecology, Gregoire is steeped in experience in energy and environmental issues. Her enthusiastic support for renewable energy has won plaudits from environmentalists."

But that's not how wild horse and other wildlife advocates necessarily see her. In November, in a Wildlife News piece headlined "Governor Gregoire's Troubling Livestock Legacy," the lead paragraph offered another view of the potential nominee:

Washington Governor Christine Gregoire is rumored to be a front-runner for nomination as Secretary of the Interior, where she would oversee millions of acres of public land. But a livestock "pilot" program she instituted in Washington, which fast-tracked the introduction of livestock grazing on Washington Wildlife Areas free of charge to ranchers, while running roughshod over the concerns of agency wildlife biologists, should give wildlife advocates pause.

The other theme that quickly blossomed after Salazar's resignation announcement was the notion that the best candidate to replace him is Representative Raul Grijalva, a Democrat who has represented Arizona's 7th District in Congress since 2003. "He has been the most staunch supporter of wild horses in Congress for many years now," said Carol Walker, a renowned wild horse photographer who closely tracks the herds. Meanwhile, the folks at the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, representing 50 such horse organizations, quickly launched an online petition to support Grijalva's undeclared candidacy.

Right or wrong, he's earned this support. Representative Grijalva has been a consistent friend to the herds, and a persistent critic of the way the BLM has handled them. In 2009, for example, he co-sponsored the "Restore Our American Mustangs Act," which would have buttressed federal protection for the horses. The measure passed the House but died later that year without being put to a vote in the Senate. In 2011, Rep. Grijalva sent this letter to Salazar, urging the Secretary to halt the BLM's "detrimental new policies" toward the horses.

So he stands up for the horses. He's not afraid of the ranching and livestock lobbies, which have dominated the Interior Department for generations. He's direct about his efforts to restore the balance Congress intended in 1971 when it passed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, the landmark statute designed to protect America's wild horse herds from precisely the sort of destruction that threatens them today. Oh, and he thinks the Obama Administration could be more transparent in its dealings on the issue. What's not to love?

When it comes to these horses -- the tens of thousands of them now in holding pens in the Midwest, many more now in captivity than roaming wild -- whoever becomes the next Secretary of the Interior will likely have to deal with the fallout from an emerging story about potential federal involvement in the sale of wild horses for slaughter, an act that is prohibited by federal law. It was the unremitting slaughter of wild horses in the 1950s, you may remember, which prompted Velma Bronn Johnston, "Wild Horse Annie" herself, to push for the enactment of the first federal laws to protect the animals.

With all this in mind, I caught up with Grijalva Wednesday afternoon as he was traveling by car through the Arizona desert, from Tuscon to Yuma. What follows is an edited transcript of our phone conversation.

I thought it would worthwhile to talk to you because a lot of the advocates on the wild horse side tell me that they think that your views on the subject are reasonable.

There are things that the BLM and this administration can be doing on this issue that aren't being done. I think that just aggravates the situation and makes this issue even more profound. There is a culture at BLM, God bless them, but there's a culture. Especially out in the West. BLM has a very strong ranching ethic with a lot of its personnel, particularly people from the states where we are dealing with this issue. Preservation of the cattle industry, the livestock industry, is prominent.

The wild horses are an anomaly in all that. And then they were classified as a threat to habitat and a threat to other species -- livestock being one of those "other species." Then the removal began. And then the loss of horses began. And the BLM has struggled ever since to come up with something humane. At this point, the issue continues to be the issue that it was when I got involved with it about six or seven years ago.

There have been published reports lately suggesting that the BLM is either selling wild horses to people associated with horse slaughter or was lax in its duty to avoid doing so. In response the BLM has promulgated new rules designed to reduce the risk of that. What's your impression of those new rules? 

I think the new rules are a step toward reducing the risk. I think absent oversight, absent enforcement as part of the mechanism for the new rules, that involves real consequences -- I think that could make it stronger. Give it some teeth. And provide the public with some assurance that these rules have consequences to them.

Do you agree with the idea of giving Washington officials -- as opposed to BLM officials on the ground near the horses -- more discretion about those kinds of sales?

It's a difficult double-edged sword to say, "Let's remove the discretion from the local land managers and the local people on the ground." It goes against all my nature. But this issue demands transparency at the national level, so all parties involved can get information, and those of us in Congress can provide some direct oversight -- rather than [having the BLM deal with wild horse issues] incident by incident, section by section, region by region.

Let's talk a little bit more about that oversight. How hard is it for you to gain support from your colleagues in the House to advance the oversight over the BLM, to basically push to enforce the 1971 Act?

It's getting better. The 1971 Act is a national policy, and so oversight is important. One of the things lacking is that Congress has essentially not dealt with it. We tried to reform that law, strengthen that law -- and got it out of the House, but never got it out of the Senate. And I think the oversight also requires some independent analysis, so that we are making decisions not based solely on information we get from BLM, but also from an impartial non-party. It could be GAO [Government Accountability Office], or it could be a third party.

That's part of the oversight. Through hearings, through information gathering, through investigative and data collection, Congress can play a bigger role. That role has not been exercised at all, and under the current majority I don't see that changing much. But this administration can do a lot more to further the cause by being more open about this particular issue and by allowing Congress and members of Congress to have some access.

During the Obama Administration, tens of thousands of wild horses have been rounded up and kept in pens, at a significant cost to the American taxpayer. Have you given any thought to what the long-term solution to this problem might be? Based on your conversations with wild horse advocates, as well as folks in the ranching and livestock community, do you see obvious areas of compromise that would protect more horses?

I think there are -- set-asides, creating overlapping area with state and federal lands, and even private lands for the horses. There is a cruelty to the roundups and the penning of these horses with no alternatives. [We need] the development of alternatives, whether it is private-public partnerships or state and federal partnerships, in creating areas, habitats for the horses, where their existence is not only permitted but protected.

I think there are compromises in terms of control of the herds that are non-invasive to the animal and that do not hurt the animal. I think adoption was seen as one of those alternatives. I think it is an alternative, but I don't think that by itself is going to be the solution.

Welfare ranching -- the notion that public ranch lands may be leased to private industry at significantly lower-than-market costs -- is something Nebraska senator Ben Nelson mentioned last year as a significant issue. What's your position with respect to it, and the fate of the horses? Have you ever thought about conditioning the continuing rates on a promise from these ranchers to keep more horses on their land?

As part of using public land for livestock, as part of the grazing fees, the corresponding agreement would be that there is a very strong and enforceable protection clause for wild horses. I think that is a good incentive -- maintaining lower rates for that. Absent that, justifiable higher rates for grazing would come into effect.

But it would have to be a trade. There would have to be an understanding that, as part of maintaining the low rates that exist now (they are even lower than state rates on public lands), there would have to be a corresponding legal and binding commitment to the horse herd. And I think that could work. Otherwise, the higher fees that would be charged, that should be charged, those could be then directed or itemized for the maintenance and the care of wild horses. Either way, I think it's a win-win.

When it comes to wild horses, which policies specifically, and maybe you've already mentioned a few, would you like to see come out of the office of the next Secretary of the Interior?

[Pause] I think it's an attitude. I think you can work with ranchers, with livestock producers, and with the whole farming and livestock industry. But it's an attitude change where you come into those discussions that the maintenance and care of herds, the control of the population growth in herds, are being done not as a political expedient but as a heritage protection for the West and a heritage protection for the country.

I think you go in with that attitude, that the wild horses are part of an equation in the West, of life, of wildlife in this instance, I think it changes the whole attitude. Because if you approach the question not as "an expendable commodity, the wild horse," or "a nuisance, the wild horse," but you approach and say, okay, now we are talking about conservation, preservation, maintenance, multi-use on the public lands.