U.S. Wild Horse Slaughter Legalization Draws Fire

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
March 10, 2005
For many Americans, wild horses are living symbols of the rugged
independence of the United States' pioneering past.

In the early 1900s millions of mares and stallions roamed the West. Today the numbers pale by comparison. Only 37,000 wild horses and donkeys remain on public lands, primarily in Nevada, Oregon, and Wyoming.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which has been responsible for preserving and protecting the herds for more than three decades, plans to further reduce the population to 28,000 by the end of this year.

That concerns wild-horse advocates who worry the animals may one day entirely disappear from the rangelands. Further raising their ire is recently passed federal legislation that could send thousands of animals currently in government holding facilities to slaughter.

Hearty, smart, and virtually lacking natural predators, wild horse herds can nearly double every five years.

To ensure western rangelands have adequate food and water for the animals to survive, the U.S. government conducts periodic round-ups, removing thousands of horses and donkeys each year.

The animals are then adopted or put into long-term holding facilities indefinitely.

Federal Pen

Currently 24,000 wild horses and donkeys are housed in government-run facilities.

"These animals live in poor conditions that often lead to their deaths, and without proper management this will continue to happen," said Montana Republican Senator, Conrad Burns.

The senator attached an amendment to a spending bill that allows for the outright sale, for slaughter, of wild horses and donkeys older than ten years old and animals that have been unsuccessfully offered for adoption at least three times.

The bill, which passed in December, removed restrictions that had been in place since 1971 and prevented wild horses from being sold commercially.

Burns says he hopes the provision will reduce the number of animals in holding facilities and cut the cost to care for them—an estimated 20.1 million dollars (U.S.) this year.

The move has angered wild horse advocates.

"It literally spells death for thousands of horses," said Diane Nelson, founder of Wild Horse Sanctuary in Shingletown, California. "If it's implemented, the only people who are going to come forward and buy in those numbers are slaughter buyers."

Yesterday, in an effort to prevent such an outcome, congressmen Nick Rahall, a Democrat from West Virginia, and Edward Whitfield, a Republican from Kentucky, introduce House Resolution 297. The bill would prohibit the sale of wild horses for slaughter.

Slaughter or Adoption

Three plants in the U.S. kill horses and ship their meat to foreign countries—such as France, Belgium, and Italy—for human consumption.

Rallying together, wild horse advocates recently helped introduce two federal bills that would prevent the commercial sale and slaughter of both wild and domestic horses.

In the meantime, the Bureau of Land Management said it is committed to finding homes for the 8,400 horses and donkeys affected by the new sale authority.

The agency is reaching out to advocacy groups, Indian tribes, and humane organizations in hopes they will purchase large numbers of animals.

Last week a horse-protection group made the first purchase, securing 200 older mares.

Sean Nater, co-owner of Wild Horses Wyoming, said his company wants to provide an alternative to keeping older stallions and mares in long-term feeding facilities.

If funding is found, the enterprise plans to buy up to 5,000 wild horses. They would then be allowed to live out their lives on 11,000 acres in as near natural conditions as possible. Ultimately, the horses will serve as an educational attraction for both public and private viewing.

Future Survival

Experts say the drastic reduction in the wild horse population could jeopardize their future survival.

To guarantee a herd's existence, 150 breeding individuals are necessary, said Ernest Gus Cothran, an equine-genetics specialist at the University of Kentucky.

"In almost all cases herd sizes have just become very small in the past 50 years," he said. "A lot of the populations, even at the current levels, are borderline viable long-term."

Cothran said exchanging one animal between herds every five years could maintain the kind of genetic diversity needed. Based on his recommendation, several herd management areas have already begun such a program, he said.

Still, Nelson, of the Wild Horse Sanctuary, fears a day may come when the population is brought to the brink of extinction. She has prepared by keeping a diverse gene pool of 200 animals on the sanctuary's property. There, the animals are largely left alone so that they remain wild.

For that very same reason, Nater, of Wild Horses Wyoming, said he plans on keeping healthy, viable herds with good genetic crossbreeding.

"Hopefully one day the people of this country will demand it's time for these horses to be returned to the range, where they belong," he said.

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