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Peter Getty is a philanthropist and contributing blogger for the Huffington Post. His work and writings revolve around environmental issues. Getty's philanthropic initiatives, as well as the organizations he supports, are committed to protecting the environment and spreading environmental awareness.

The Coming Extinction of American Wild Horses

BLM Horse Roundup

BLM Horse Roundup

The image of horses running free over wide open land is inextricably tied with America’s birth. But that image has become gravely threatened due to the U.S. government’s recent alignment with ‘Big Cattle.’

Today, there are more American wild horses being held in facilities than are currently in the wild. Since the 19th century, the number of wild horses free in the West has declined by 90%. According to American Wild Horse Organization, the practices of removing American horses off public lands has decimated their numbers and raised taxpayer costs by $80,000,000 each fiscal year. Thousands of wild horses are being herded by helicopters and vehicles into holding pens annually. The ones who survive separation from their families, substandard veterinary care, electric cattle prods or other horse ‘management’ techniques are stockpiled until they’re sold at auction or die, never to run wild again.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) which oversees the once healthy and thriving wild horse and burro population in the western United States is leading wild horses and burros to their executions. Though BLM has claimed there have been no deaths or injuries to wild horses or burros during the roundups, NBC correspondent Lisa Myers’ exposé on wild horses gruesomely captures on film a foal being trampled to death in a BLM holding facility.

Much of the culpability points to the Cattle Industry, which claims that wild horses and burros are a nuisance on public land, though cattle drastically outnumber wild horses and burros. 240 million acres (82.5%) of public land are leased to private companies for grazing, and less is being shared with wild horses every day.

Government agencies, like the Bureau of Land Management and Department of Fish and Game, are opting to favor private interests over the protection of wild horses and burros. BLM claims that public lands are being overrun and overpopulated by wild horses, though their numbers have dropped over 90% in the last century. In fact, the population of horses and burros are so low, BLM’s own lead equine geneticist, Dr. Gus Cothran, has stated that the reduction in the U.S. burro population is resulting in inbreeding due to a lack of genetic variability. The burro population has only 20 out of the 70% needed for a healthy genetic variability.

Such figures led the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to warn in its 2013 report that “removing burros permanently from the range could jeopardize the genetic health of the total population.” So far, those warnings have done nothing to curb the roundups.

30-year retired BLM employee, Bob Edwards, says it’s not the wild horse population that needs managing, it’s the livestock numbers. Said Edwards, “The wild horses are not receiving a fair shake.”

In June 2014,nonprofit organizations and friends of wild horse preservation petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the animals as an endangered species to protect them from cattlemen who would prefer the public lands be used for grazing herds rather than those “pesty” wild horses.

“These horses are different, they are treated different under the law, they behave differently and there’s some evidence they are genetically different,” said Denver’s Friends of Animals lawyer, Jennifer Barnes.

Ironically, 40% of America’s wild horses’ habitat had been lost since President Nixon passed the Free Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act in 1971 which submits:

 […] Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected  from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.

Laura Leigh of the advocacy group Wild Horse Education doesn’t think the Act has provided any such protection to the wild horses, “It’s my observation that the government continually violates the provision of the act that requires humane handling of these animals.” Leigh has taken BLM to court four times armed with her own footage of cruelty to the wild horses, and has won two temporary restraining orders against BLM.

As a big blow to advocates of wild horses, on July 1, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to grant endangered species status to wild horses.

Singer, songwriter Carole King added, “Americans love freedom. These horses are the embodiment of freedom.” But the wild horses are no longer free, and may never be again.

**To do your part to keep American wild horses free, learn more about sustainable ranching or sharing public lands for wildlife, stay informed and help the organizations listed below:


Advocates of Wild Horses:

American Wild Horse Preservation Org

Return to Freedom

Hidden Valley Horses

Cloud Foundation

Wild Horse Education

Resources: infographic:

American Wild Horse Preservation Org

BLM on Today Show:


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