Wild horse protection advocates are accusing the federal Bureau of Land Management of stacking a public advisory board with friends of cattle ranchers at the expense of mustangs, and warning that the panel is increasingly sympathetic to the idea of slaughtering excess animals in overpopulated herds on U.S. lands in the West.
BLM officials denied the charges and are fighting back in uncharacteristically strong terms, saying the activists are resorting to dishonest scare tactics to help push their “anti-management agenda by any means possible.”
“Their apocalypse-now, sky-is-falling rhetoric is flagrantly dishonest and is clearly aimed at preventing the BLM from gathering horses from overpopulated herds on the range,” BLM spokesman Tom Gorey told the Associated Press. “The BLM is not ‘managing for extinction.’ There is no conspiracy to put down healthy horses that are in off-the-range holding facilities.”
The sharp tenor of remarks from both sides speaks to the heated divide over wild horses in the West. Idaho has about 500 wild horses, according to the BLM.
Leaders of a coalition of more than 45 wild horse advocacy groups wrote to BLM Director Bob Abbey the week of Feb. 6 to “object in the strongest of terms” to recent appointments to the nine-member Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board.
In one case, the agency rejected a request for reappointment from an Ohio woman who opposes the slaughter of horses and replaced her with a Colorado woman who believes that option has to be on the table, given the spiraling cost of housing mustangs and burros gathered from the range in 10 Western states.
“It is apparent that the BLM is stacking this citizen advisory board with representatives of special interests that stand to profit from the capture and slaughter of America’s wild horses,” wrote Suzanne Roy, director of the North Carolina-based American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign.
“Instead of releasing wild horses back to their legal homes, BLM seems to be setting the stage for a lethal solution,” said Craig Downer, a wildlife ecologist for the Cloud Foundation based in Colorado Springs, Colo.
The horse advocates leveled similar criticism last year at a National Academy of Sciences committee that the BLM has commissioned to conduct a two-year review of the horse program.
They’ve taken aim now at Callie Hendrickson of Grand Junction, Colo., director of a pair of state conservation districts who has advocated the sale of horses for slaughter at long-term holding facilities as a last resort, if they are older than 10 years or have been offered for adoption three times unsuccessfully.
Hendrickson told the AP she was “open” to other options but not to leaving excess horses on the range. “The rangeland cannot sustain such large numbers,” she said.
Hendrickson fills the general “public interest” seat on the BLM panel that was held by Janet Jankura of Richfield, Ohio.
“It is outrageous for the BLM to attempt to pass this pro-ranching, pro-slaughter opponent of wild horses off as a representative of the general public,” Roy said.
BLM officials have acknowledged they can’t afford indefinitely the cost of housing and feeding the horses they capture — $35 million last fiscal year on 45,000 horses in short-term corrals and Midwestern pastures. That’s more than the estimated 38,497 wild horses and burros BLM estimates were roaming free at the end of last year. That estimate is about 12,000 more than the agency thinks would be best for the health of the rangeland where the population doubles naturally every four or five years.
In addition to two public interest slots, the board has one seat each for representatives of livestock, wildlife and natural resources management, along with veterinary medicine, humane advocacy, wild horse and burro advocacy and horse and burro research.
Ginger Kathrens, executive director of The Cloud Foundation, said it’s the second time in nine months BLM has replaced a mustang ally with someone who appears to “have little problem with lethal management of our wild horses.”
James Stephenson, a consultant for the Yakama Nation in Washington, has spoken in support of the slaughtering option since he was appointed late last year as the natural resource management rep.
Other board members that critics say favor livestock or other wildlife over horses include Dr. Boyd Spratling, a veterinarian and past president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, who was reappointed to a three-year term last month.
Spratling, who also was a state wildlife commissioner for 10 years, said he is a strong advocate of protecting wild horses but believes the top priority must be maintaining the health of the range. He called the criticism “vicious’” and “absolutely unfair.”
The critics “know they can elicit emotion and a lot of these organizations, very honestly, they are looking to raise contributions,” he said.
Tim Harvey, the humane advocate who operates a therapeutic riding program in Campton, N.H., said he didn’t always agree with Spratling but defended him as someone with a “balanced view” and sensitive to humane treatment of animals.
The other new appointment to the horse and burro advocacy slot is June C. Sewing of Cedar City, Utah, executive director of the National Mustang Association. Her husband, Richard, was a member of the BLM board before his death in 2009. She didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Gorey said the appointments were based on individual qualifications.
“No one is guaranteed a re-appointment to the board,” Gorey said, “nor is kinship a factor.”
In announcing the new appointments last week, BLM director Abbey commended Jankura for serving during “challenging times.”