By Michael Winerip, The New York Times
It seemed like one of those blatant outrages, a case of good versus evil with an easy solution if the United States government would just come to the rescue.
Herds of wild horses, brought to this country long ago by Spanish settlers, a symbol of a free American West, were being rounded up, slaughtered and sold to the pet food industry for cheap meat. If something wasn’t done, these beautiful untamed animals would disappear as the buffalo had a century earlier.
But the public mobilized. There was a huge letter-writing campaign to Congress; an 11-year-old boy persuaded his father, a congressman from Maryland, Gilbert Gude, to file legislation; and in 1971, President Richard M. Nixon signed a bill that made killing the horses a federal crime.
And then, as this week’s Retro Report video points out, the problems began.
It turns out that wild horses multiply like rabbits and eat like, well, horses.
This upsets ranchers whose cattle graze on the same public lands and are competing for the same grass.
Over the last four decades the horse preservationists have battled the ranchers; federal officials have been caught in the middle, pleasing no one.
When the Bureau of Land Management decides there is a wild horse surplus, officials round up some of the herds and move them into short-term corrals and long-term pastures. The federal government is caring for about 50,000 of these horses — almost as many horses as there are humans in Cheyenne, Wyo. — making the government the biggest horse owner in the country and perhaps the world.
There are now more wild horses in captivity than in the wild, according to the B.L.M.
The cost just for holding them off the range increased to $43 million last year from $7 million in 2000. The total cost of the wild horse program was $75 million in 2012.
A little perspective: The federal government spends a lot more on horses than Cheyenne — with an annual budget of $50 million — is spending on humans.
A report by the National Academy of Sciences released this month is not particularly hopeful, calling the current policy “expensive and unproductive.”
The study points out that the more horses the government herds out of the wild, the more forage there is available in the wild, which actually may contribute to an increase in the wild horse population.
That’s not a misprint: the more wild horses are removed, the more wild horses there will probably be.
The report recommends an increase in the use of fertility control drugs to limit the population of the herds.
The problem may be confounding, but the horses are majestic. There is something primitive in them that I found spellbinding as I watched the video. (A written version of the video can be found here.)
This week’s Retro Report is the seventh in a weekly series that re-examines leading stories of decades past. The videos are typically 10 to 12 minutes long and are part of a collaboration between The New York Times and Retro Report, a documentary news organization formed last year.
The online project was started with a grant from Christopher Buck. Retro Report, which has a staff of 12 journalists and six contributors, is a nonprofit video news organization that aims to provide a thoughtful counterweight to today’s 24/7 news cycle.