The galloping pony with its mane flowing like a banner in the prairie wind is the enduring expression of the unbridled American West.
If not for its flaming eyes and garish color, the rearing mustang outside Denver International Airport would be the unofficial ambassador to Colorado. Maybe it is, anyway.
Yet, managing wild horses, like a lot of inconvenient crises, escapes us. The issue is going politically extinct because of Westerners’ inability to adapt.
That’s not news. As the Western wilds gave way to people and cows over the course of 100 years, wild horses were rounded up and slaughtered for dog food, until the pendulum of government swung back in 1971. When Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, the beasts were reclassified as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” that “enrich the lives of the American people.”
Fifty years later, the chickens have come home to roost with too many wild horses on too little designated range.
The Bureau of Land Management manages and protects wild horses and burros on 26.9 million acres of public lands across 10 Western states, including 440,000 acres in four designated habitat-management areas in Colorado west of the Continental Divide. Collectively, that’s an area a little smaller than Douglas County.
BLM estimates there are 80,000 horses roaming federal public land. Cows grazing the same property, however, number upward of 2 million.
Meanwhile, Congress isn’t budgeting enough to feed or manage the 49,000 horses penned up in corrals built for 27,000.
Wild-horse welfare groups think the government sets its goals and thresholds way too low, stacking the deck in favor of ranchers. The debate is being argued to a stalemate right now.
Last year, Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse was one of the House members who sought an appropriation for $11 million for reversible birth control for wild horses and burros on federal land.
The Senate balked. Congress instead penciled in a $21 million increase in the wild horse program, but only after BLM completes a five-year plan to increase roundups and birth control.
The Biden administration hasn’t yet tipped its hand on wild horses, but advocates think they have an ally in the new interior secretary, former Rep. Deb Haaland from New Mexico.
After celebrating the news of Haaland’s confirmation, 70 wild-horse conservation organizations, several from Colorado, co-signed a letter to the new secretary calling for a outright ban on livestock grazing on federal land for the sake of horses and burros. They want a scientific assessment of what grazing permits for cows and sheep mean to sustainable populations for wild horses.
When you strip away the pretty horses, the Western heritage, the environmental destruction and the public support for a vital iconic industry, however, what’s left — the gold settled in the bottom of the pan — is a math problem: How much?
Last month, The New York Times put the cost for maintaining wild horses for a lifetime in the billions.
Agriculture is one of the load-bearing pillars of Colorado’s economy, and cattle does most of the heavy lifting: 60 cents of every dollar ag produces. It’s hard to pick a fight against 2.6 million head of economy-driving bovine.
Last year, ranchers paid $1.35 per month per animal, the least amount allowed by law, to graze on BLM lands via nearly 18,000 permits and leases administered by the BLM and nearly 6,250 permits from the U.S. Forest Service.
In a 2019 report, the Congressional Budget Office noted that BLM spent $79 million on rangeland management but collected just $26 million in grazing fees.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association contends the problem is inescapable: too many horses, too much fringe rhetoric. Ranchers have been compromising; it’s the ranchers working with the BLM to manage a healthy range, said Kaitlynn Glover, executive director of the trade organization’s Public Lands Council.
Ranchers have been at the table working on horse populations and ecosystem health, according to its advocates, rather than the stop-it mentality that rarely delivers much beyond gridlock.
The answer is to better balance and distribute the resources, before the rangeland and biodiversity are nibbled or trampled to death.
“All the fair-minded groups involved in the horse debate understand the problem and know how to fix it,” Shawn Martini, the vice president of advocacy for the Colorado Farm Bureau, told me. “There are too many horses on the range, more than the law currently allows.
“But the sclerotic nature of public lands management prevents any progress from being made. In the meantime, rangelands, ecosystems and the wildlife species they support all suffer because for some groups and enthusiasts, no price is too high to keep wild horses from being managed in a responsible way.”
We’ve made a mess out of caring for two of our national treasures, horses and beef, like we’re serving bald eagles with potatoes and gravy.
Moreover, the issue doesn’t yield a lot of partisan bang for the buck on Election Day, so change will come slow, if it comes at all.
Both sides of the same coin can’t agree they’re a nickel, to again win a fight rather than solve a crisis.
Congress continues to say whoa, when the answer is giddyup. Ain’t that America?