By Kerry Drake, WyoFile
Ken Salazar may not have totally destroyed the Wild Horse and Burro Management Program while he was head of the Interior Department, but he made an already terrible situation far worse. Now advocates for the animals hope a change at the top leads to some positive changes in a program they believe has been a disaster since it was created by Congress in 1971.
Ginger Kathrens, a filmmaker who has spent the past 19 years documenting the activities of the Pryor Mountain wild horse herd in Wyoming and Montana, said Salazar was a rancher who viewed the animals as pests, and implemented policies that treated them as such. He left office dodging questions about the sale of 1,700 wild horses to one of his Colorado neighbors, who had them slaughtered. The matter is still under investigation.
Under Salazar, the program’s budget more than doubled while most of its efforts failed miserably. The agency now spends 60 percent of the program budget on expenses related to the more than 50,000 horses it rounded up that are now kept in holding pens. The rest is spent “managing” the remaining 38,000 wild horses left roaming the West, but as a damning report issued in June by the National Academy of Sciences noted, that estimate is nothing but a guess.
Kathrens, who lives on a ranch in Westcliffe, Colo., said the BLM has just wanted to see wild horses gone, literally managed to extinction. Jeannine Stallings, a long-time animal advocate in Cheyenne, agrees.
“The BLM has failed in its mission 100 percent, on purpose,” Stallings charged.
Stallings, 83, has watched the agency carefully and critically over the years. When I interviewed her about the wild horse program in 1987, she said the agency had ignored studies it commissioned from the National Academy of Sciences then “because they didn’t get the results they wanted.”
Wearing a bright yellow T-shirt that proclaims, “Americans Don’t Eat Horses,” Stallings said while she voted for Barack Obama twice and considers him a good president, “He certainly hasn’t been a friend to wild horses.”
Why should anything be different now?
Kathrens said that Sally Jewell, the new secretary of Interior appointed by Obama, doesn’t have the personal animosity toward wild horses that Salazar had. “She brings with her a love of the wild and open spaces,” she explained. “If she appoints people to key positions who agree with her, who have progressive ideas about how wild horses should be managed — and the old guard that just wants to get rid of them is gone — things could change.”
Stallings likes the fact that Jewell is known to support Native American issues, and since wild horses are a huge part of the Indian culture, she said, “I hope that spills over to wild horse and burro issues.”
Time will tell if Jewell is able to — or even wants to — change the program’s direction, but in the meantime the lives of thousands of wild horses are at risk here and in nine other Western states.
“In Wyoming, we have a tragedy in the making,” Kathrens said. She was referring to the BLM’s plan to “zero out” the Rock Springs herd on private land, which will mean taking all of the horses off public land as well. The animals would be rounded up and moved to Salt Wells and Adobe Town in the Red Desert, where forage is scarce.
The Rock Springs herd has become a great tourist attraction to the area, she noted, but under the BLM’s plan, people would no longer have road access to see the wild horses.
Kathrens has likely done more than anyone else to raise the public’s awareness of the multitude of problems facing America’s wild horses. She has produced three films for PBS’s “Nature” series, focusing on the Pryor Mountain herd and in particular the life of Cloud, a wild pale palomino stallion whose birth was captured by her camera 18 years ago.
Stallings said Cloud has been rounded up several times up by helicopter crews contracted by BLM, but always freed. “They could never take Cloud off the range,” she said. “They know the public just wouldn’t stand for it.”
Kathrens said the herd now has two Cloud lookalikes in Echo, his grandson, and Encore, his daughter. The filmmaker said she’s happy that the palomino she helped make famous will live on through his offspring. “He’s not going to live forever,” she said.
The nonprofit Cloud Foundation started by Kathrens is dedicated to preventing the extinction of Cloud’s herd through education, media events and programming, and public involvement. It is also dedicated to protecting other wild horse herds on public lands, especially isolated herds with unique characteristics and historical significance.
For years, the BLM has defended its management program and maintained that the roundups are necessary. But some former BLM officials are now decrying what the agency is doing.
Bob Edwards, who retired in 2005 after 30 years with the BLM managing wild horses and working as a natural resources specialist, told NBC News last year that “the wild horses are not getting a fair shake. I don’t think they have been given their proper place on the landscape in the American West.”
What should happen to the 50,000 wild horses being kept in pens by the federal government? Kathrens said the obvious solution is to “take some of the 24 million acres of public land where the herds have been ‘zeroed out’ and put them back on the range.”
Her fear, though, is that the agency will surreptitiously get rid of the animals by selling them off to eventually be slaughtered when the public isn’t paying attention.
Stallings shares her concern. “The fact is that BLM is winning and we’re losing,” she said. “Things have always been bad, but it’s much worse today, and it’s going to take a national outcry [for things to improve]. I just hope it doesn’t end in a horrendous, final tragedy. … I want to live long enough to see something positive happen.”
Thanks in large part to Stallings, Kathrens and other animal advocates’ abilities to stir up the public, wild horses have not disappeared from the range yet. But they’ve been right about these issues for decades, and are still largely ignored by the federal government. It’s time someone in charge seriously listens to them, and I hope Sally Jewell is the one who does.