The Misfits (1961) is the last completed film of both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, and one of the last of Montgomery Clift. It portrays a time when there was no protection for the American wild horse the Mustang whatsoever. If you had a gun, you could go hunt a Mustang. If you had a truck and a rope, you could go catch one live, then do whatever you want with him, or her, whether she had a foal at foot or not. Most ended up in the slaughterhouse.
The Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFRHBA, 1971) put a stop to the savagery and gave the mustangs and burros a measure of protection. No longer could hunters hunt mustangs, nor could meat merchants just pluck them from the wild. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was created as a branch of the Department of the Interior (DOI) and placed in charge of the public lands and the wild horses living thereupon. Its mandate was to set an upper limit for the number of wild horses allowed on public land, and protect them from hunting and capture. Notable is that while mustang hunting was a blanket ban, not so live capture, which remains permissible, though only by the BLM. The live capture was to be exercised when the estimated number of wild horses (hereafter including burros) on public land exceeded the Appropriate Management Level (AML, which basically means the maximum allowable population on a piece of land, or the carrying capacity of the land) of wild horses set by the BLM in 1971. At that time the BLM estimated wild horse population to be around 26,000, based on which the AML was then set somewhat arbitrarily at 26,600. Noteworthy in this transition is that the precursor of the BLM was the US Grazing Service (USGS), which makes obvious the cattle-over-horse priority and bias of the BLM. Still, since the WFRHBA forbids the killing of captured wild horses, the BLM turned to adoption as the way to dispense of the captives. Meanwhile, they were kept in corrals – of what would become the Wild Horse Holding Facilities.
This looked like a plan but in fact not, at least not one that could work in the long run, but then, the BLM of 1971 never looked two steps ahead, much less three, especially when their one-step-thinking worked out initially for awhile. Perhaps due to The Misfits and the new law, public interest in the Mustang was at an all time high. All captured mustangs were adopted in the first few years. But then, Mustang Fever gradually waned, and leveled off at only about 7% of captive horses getting adopted.
Then came BLM’s second bout of one-step-thinking. Due to the new no-kill policy, they built more holding facilities to keep the unadopted and the unadoptables, for life. But how many?
Malthus, Ecology 101, as well as the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) hold that most herbivorous species, in the presence of a healthy food supply, would have a reproductive rate increase of 15-20% per year, or doubling every 4 years, and the wild horse is no exception. The role of the wild horse’s natural predators, principally the wolf and the cougar, is to cut the 15-20% down to 0% for a stable and sustainable wild horse population. A schematic ecologically painting of the public land in 1971, however, included no wolves or cougars, which have been eradicated by ranchers to protect their livestock, and hunters as competition for deer and elk, which means that nature’s own control mechanism has been excised. Thus crippled, nature cannot regulate the wild horse population on its own. It does have a last resort – population regulation by starvation – which, other than the horrible tragedy of it all, would be compounded with serious if not irreversible environmental damage, when, at that point, most of the damage would be done by the truly overpopulated domestic cattle, which number some 2 million.
To prevent environmental collapse human intervention is required. The BLM’s way was removal of wild horses by helicopter roundup. The “HAR PLAN” is all for that, and will expand on it with gusto. Since this increase would be exponential if not slowed or halted, the BLM resorted to their third bout of one-step-thinking – to massively round up excess wild horses by helicopter, and to build more and more holding facilities to house more and more of them, with no end in sight.
But then of course, in sight or not, there is an end. It is called the Annual Budget. As more and more horses were rounded up, more and more holding facilities had to be built, and they aren’t cheap, to build and especially to run. By the time 2018 came around, it was estimated that to keep each captive wild horse, the cost is some $48,000 over its lifetime on average. The cost of helicopter roundups and running the existing holding facilities combined consumed over 80% of BLM’s annual budget, leaving little for the field work it is supposed to do.
I gave 2018 special though not honorable mention for a specific reason. It was the year when BLM’s kicking-the-can-down-the-road finally hit the wall. It was the year when the holding facilities were declared full, to the tune of 47,000 horses, when, to make things even more unworkable, BLM’s on-range wild horse population estimate had risen to 82,000, or 55,400 over the AML of 26,600. There was no money left in the budget to build more holding facilities, nor helicopter expenses to roundup 55,400 horses as BLM policy dictated. The suddenly pressing question, “suddenly” because BLM did not seem prepared, became “Where are the 55,400 horses to go but the slaughterhouse, even if we had the budget to round them up?”
The phrase that pops up is: “What a mess!” And Congress saw it too. In February, 2019, Congress ordered the BLM to come up with a solution to solve the unprecedented problem once and for all. BLM’s response was to advance a plan put together by the HSUS, the ASPCA Return To Freedom (HAR), and dozens of “stakeholders”, basically special interest groups including cattle ranching and resources extraction, herein called the “HAR PLAN”. This HAR PLAN is an unimaginative and incoherent conglomerate of compromises, which amounts to nothing more than an abidance to the old BLM formula and the original, i.e. low, AML of around 30,000. It requires rounding up 15,000-20,000 wild horses per year at least over the first four years, and somewhat less in the following years, until the population is reduced down to the low AML. To hold these new captives, BLM will build more holding facilities. The cost for the helicopter roundup would be around $20 million per year, and the cost of building and running more holding facilities will be about $30 million a year, totaling $50 million per year, and that is over and above the regular BLM budget of $85 million in 2019. Meanwhile, BLM will suppress the population even further by “aggressive” applications of neutering by whatever means necessarily.
I call this BLM’s 4th bout of one-step-thinking. The second step in this bout, were it mentally taken, would be to see that after just 4 years, there will be 60,000-80,000 more horses in captivity over and above the current 47,000, totaling 107,000-127,000. At $50,000 per horse of lifetime care, the total cost to care for 127,000 captive horses, and increasing, will be staggering. If you think that today’s 47,000 is bad, wait till 125,000. Almost inevitably, this whole system will financially collapse. At that point , it will all be about money, and tens of thousands of captive wild horse will go to slaughter, public outcry be damned.
The HAR PLAN is worse than no plan, and no plan will spell doom to all wild horses. The only option for us then is to advance an innovative, outside-the-box solution, an unprecedented solution for an unprecedented problem.
Enter the MARR PLAN – February, 2019.