Out west, wild horses and burros live in packs, forming strong bonds with family and friends and doing all the photogenic things people expect of them: running like the wind, tossing their manes, resting their heads on each other’s necks, and generally looking majestic. I know this because I have met them up close.
It took a tiny little plane and a four-wheel drive journey over some very bumpy “roads” and past quite a few oil pumpjacks to find them, and right they were to hide — the federal government is out to get them.
Every year the Bureau of Land Management flies helicopters low over the horses, rounding thousands of them up in a terrifying ordeal that injures some horses, drives others off of cliffs to their deaths, and separates nearly all of them from their family and friends. The captured horses are sold for slaughter or kept in pens for the rest of their lives; a (comparatively) lucky few are adopted.
There is no rational explanation for this expensive operation. There is an irrational one, though: private ranchers want their cattle and sheep to graze on the public land the horses live on, and the government helps them do it, charging only pennies on the dollar for the privilege. Those privately-owned for-profit outfits that are sucking up the oil have a hand in this cookie jar too. So wild horses living on public land are terrorized, penned, and killed on the taxpayers’ dime to increase the profits of private companies.
What’s more, there is a very specific federal law meant to protect wild horses and burros. It’s called the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, and it says that for the most part, the government should leave these animals alone.
When I was a lawyer at The Animal Legal Defense Fund we went to court to stop the round-ups. A federal judge in Salt Lake City turned us down because, as humans, we weren’t the beneficiaries of the law and therefore didn’t have the right to try to enforce it. Needless to say, the horses aren’t allowed to enforce it either. It’s a well-intentioned law, but perhaps not so well thought out.
This mess has been going on for years. Yesterday Vickery Eckhoff published a thorough article on Forbes.com about the politics, the history, and the impact on the animals of government round-ups. I recommend reading it.