The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that's the essence of inhumanity. -George Bernard Shaw

Monday, June 06, 2005

Facts and Fiction...

guest commentary
Fact, fiction on West's wild horses
By Andrea Lococo
Washington, D.C.

Some members of the Colorado congressional delegation apparently have been hoodwinked into believing that there are too many wild horses roaming on Western public lands; that they are starving to death; that their removal is necessary to protect the environment; and that caring for them is too costly, so allowing them to be sold to slaughter is the only recourse. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is incumbent upon federal legislators to sort out facts from fiction. Thankfully, the majority of congressmen, including Reps. Diana DeGette and Mark Udall, did just that when they voted a few days ago in support of the Rahall/Whitfield amendment to the Interior Appropriations bill, the purpose of which was to ensure that no taxpayer dollars are used for the sales of wild horses that could lead to their slaughter.

To set the record straight:

Fiction: Wild horses are overpopulated.
Fact: Wild horse populations have been reduced from more than 2
million at the turn of the last century to less than 35,000 today - soon to be reduced to only 22,000, roughly 1 percent of the original wild horse population. Compared to the millions of privately owned livestock grazing on the same public lands, it's clear that the only animals overpopulated are cows and sheep.

The majority of wild horse herds are managed at such low populations that their long-term genetic viability is in serious jeopardy. Yet the livestock industry still isn't satisfied and continues to pressure the Bureau of Land Management, the primary agency charged with the protection of wild horses and burros, to reduce their numbers and their habitat acreage.

Fiction: The program is too costly and selling horses is necessary to save money.

Fact: The current $40 million wild horse program pales in comparison to the estimated $500 million American taxpayers lose each year on
the livestock grazing program.

Removing wild horses is just one of a host of taxpayer subsidies for the livestock industry. Taxpayers are footing the bill to support private ranchers who pay a pittance for grazing fees, who profit from low property taxes and open range laws, and use public- lands permits as collateral to obtain bank loans.

Other wastes of general tax dollars include exterminating wildlife on public lands, littering public lands with fences and water developments to accommodate livestock, and offering price supports and emergency relief to benefit ranchers.

To make matters worse, less than 2 percent of the nation's beef supply is produced on Western public lands and the majority of taxpayer subsidies go directly into the pockets of large corporations and millionaires, not family- run small ranches. Welfare to corporate cowboys is as fiscally irresponsible as it gets.

Furthermore, selling wild horses for as little as $1 apiece seals their fate. Just since the end of February, when the government started selling wild horses, several have been sold to slaughter. Countless more will follow, only to wind up in fancy overseas restaurants.

Fiction: Horses are causing habitat degradation.

Fact: Numerous scientific studies, plus the government's own data, indicate that the primary cause of soil erosion, water depletion and pollution, and loss of native vegetation is livestock grazing. Because of overwhelming evidence and public demand, the BLM finally began reducing livestock grazing pressure on public lands during the 1990s. Naturally, such reductions displeased ranchers, and they clamored for wild horse removals in order to eliminate competition for valuable forage.

In 2000, the BLM caved in to this political pressure and recklessly decided to initiate sudden and massive round- ups of wild horses and burros with a goal of reducing their population in half within five years. This decision set the stage for a backlog in the Adopt-a-Wild-Horse program, which, until then, had kept pace with removals.

Fiction: Horses are starving to death and must be removed for
their own good.

Fact: Horses are being removed, not for their own good, but for the good of the livestock industry. Playing on the public's sympathies can't disguise the fact that the thousands of horses presently being rounded up are perfectly healthy. In rare circumstances, horses may face starvation due to severe climatic conditions, just as other wildlife species, but more often than not, they are unable to access forage in their own herd areas due to fencing constructed to confine livestock, but which also illegally confines wild horses.

Let's hope the rest of the Colorado delegation removes its blinders by learning the facts about the government's mismanagement of our nation's wild horses and burros. Co-sponsoring House Resolution 297 and Senate Bill 576 will help to ensure that these "living symbols of the historic and pioneer West" are not sold to slaughter. After years of merciless persecution, that's the least these majestic animals deserve.

Andrea Lococo is a wildlife consultant for the Society for Animal Protective Legislation, a national organization headquartered in Washington, D.C.


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