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A helicopter pushes wild horses into a trap during the Bureau of Land Management’s Range Creek Rangehorses near Wellington, Carbon County, on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019.
A helicopter pushes wild horses into a trap during the Bureau of Land Management’s Range Creek Rangehorses near Wellington, Carbon County, on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

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Could wild horses feed the world’s hungry ... or Siberian tigers and Amur leopards?

Controversial ideas abound with U.S. populations of horses, burros

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories exploring the challenges of managing wild horses in the West and the cost of doing nothing.

BRIGHAM CITY — Stan Summers remembers the time when as a young boy he was traipsing through the rangeland in northern Utah near the Nevada and Idaho borders, and there it was.

A mustang.

“I love horses,” he said. “I caught that mustang out in Grouse Creek and trained it as a kid. It was beautiful.”

He named it Dusk.

But over the years, he’s also seen horses roaming remote areas of the 6,700-square-mile county and their appearance was ghastly. Horses with halters that had become part of their flesh. Ranchers say it is not uncommon to see horses with dangling lead ropes caught on trees or fenceposts, essentially delivering a death sentence for the animal.

“People turn out horses they can’t afford,” said Summers, who serves as a Box Elder County commissioner.

Summers, 54, said it was particularly bad when the Great Recession hit in 2008 and the price of hay led to widespread abandonment of the animals on the range and selling them for slaughter was no longer an option for horse owners.

Horses eat out of protein tubs Beaver County on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019.
Horses eat out of protein tubs Beaver County on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019.
Tammy Pearson

“Our search and rescue would see them out in the range, without water, not knowing what to do because they didn’t grow up that way. They had no idea where things were,” Summers said.

He said there are some Bureau of Land Management horses up in the northern corner of the county near Nevada, but he contends their home shouldn’t be on the range.

Decades ago, Summers said a rancher turned a stud loose to run with the mares. The animals look more like a popular domestic breed called the Appaloosa.

“They’re not natural, it is not a natural place. They weren’t here.”

Rangehorses
Rangehorses
Deseret News

But Summers says he is not angry at the horses; he’s angry at the inaction in Washington, D.C., on management of horse and burro populations on the range, and as a taxpayer, at the millions of dollars being spent on a needless problem.

“The money we are spending on them are not doing the horses any good or us any good.”

The irony, he said, is he knows of another elected official whose relative operates a slaughterhouse in Mexico.

“They could take every horse in captivity that we are paying for and we could start feeding the world tomorrow,” adding that horse meat is considered a delicacy in other countries and is higher in protein and lower in fat than beef.

“But nobody wants to do anything because it is just an emotional place,” he said.

Marla Trowbridge, from Trenton, has owned horses for more than 40 years and has a 26-year-old mustang off a Nevada Native American Indian reservation, two yearlings from Utah’s Muddy Creek herd and a Chincoteague pony she took from a friend in Colorado.

She swears by mustangs and says there isn’t anything the animals can’t do.

“Oh, they’re the best,” she said.

But as much as she loves horses, she said the worst thing that happened in the United States was the closure of horse slaughter facilities in 2007.

“Owners don’t have slaughter as an option and as horrible as slaughter sounds, it is a lot faster than it is to starve and rot behind a barn when a family is stuck in that position,” she said. “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘Hey can you take my horse?‘ ... when it comes to the choice of do you feed your family or do you feed your horse. ... You can’t sell it because the market is saturated.”

As much as the BLM tries to do with adoptions, those don’t always work out well either, said Summers, coming back to the money that is being spent.

The agency recently came to the Box Elder County Fairgrounds for an adoption event, leasing space from the county and only adopted one horse, he said.

“They had to pay to get the horses there and pay to get them back. It cost them about $20,000. I don’t know why we can throw that kind of money around when we have homeless, hungry kids and the need for more money for suicide prevention and drug prevention.”

He wishes, he said, people could come together to find logical solutions.

“How can we get to the point where we can come together and do what is best? Do I eat horse meat? No. If I was starving? You aren’t kidding I would. If it is available, and if it is cheap and it is good for people, then why are we saying no?”

He compared the issue to having strawberries on sale, but then forbidding their availability.

“You can’t have them because we are afraid the strawberries won’t be there.”

In the Great Depression and into World War II, Priceonomics detailed that horse meat evolved into a $100 million industry because of strict rations and shortages of other food. Beef was being shipped overseas for U.S. soldiers.

Over the years, butchers sold horse meat touted as “beef,” and the federal government banned horse meat in several states. With beef prices soaring in the 1973-75 recession, several East Coast states turned back to horse meat consumption. After 1975, the practice faded, according to the data tracking group.

Slaughter a four-letter word

What to do with the horses on the range, over the years, has evoked some controversial proposals.

At one point, the BLM reviewed a pilot project proposal to ship 2,000 horses to Siberia in Russia to serve as prey for the endangered Siberian tiger and Amur leopard. It drew outrage from special interest groups and ultimately was dropped.

In the wild horse world, slaughter is a four-letter word to many.

When Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, unveiled a congressional proposal to allow “humane” euthanasia of wild horses and burros, his inbox was overrun with death threats. The proposal died.

To others in the horse world, the animals are viewed as livestock and livestock is slaughtered all the time for dinner plates and for feed for big carnivores.

California’s Bill Simpson conducted a five-year study that started in 2014 to look at horses’ impacts on natural landscapes in about 5,000 acres in Northern California and Oregon. The land was host to 67 horses that were preyed on by coyotes and mountain lions. Over the study period, 52 horses remained.

In the interim, Simpson’s study looked at the horses’ positive benefits on fuels reduction — the understory and brush — that are a primary driver in catastrophic wildfires.

He wants to do a pilot project and introduce horses into select wilderness areas in the Pacific Northwest, where logging is prohibited, mechanized fuels treatment is forbidden and of course, livestock grazing isn’t allowed.

“We don’t need to have this range war,” he said. Natural predation will keep populations down, and the horses will play an important role in fuels reduction, he stressed.

“Forcing these horses into livestock production areas is not good for either the horse or the cow. It is bad resource management, it is bad all around.”

In a paper in the Society of Range Management, a trio of researchers and rangeland experts from the University of Nevada, Reno proposed implementation of tax credit incentives to generate private sector funding to adopt horses. Charitable contributions or transferable tax credits would be directly linked to the care and maintenance cost on a per-animal basis.

They proposed that for each animal taken by a qualified citizen or advocacy group, they would receive tax credit equal to the cost for care per head of animal on an annual basis. In addition, the individual or the group could either keep or sell the tax credit to a person or entity with a tax liability. However, if the private sector didn’t step up to take the excess horses over a three- to five-year period, they warned that Congress should then authorize “sale and lethal means of disposal.”

With all manner of strategies out there, the truth is the horse and burro problem goes largely unmanaged by a federal agency hamstrung by laws and strapped for resources.

Frustration over the issue propelled the state of Utah to chip in $1.5 million to help improve rangeland conditions and to help the BLM cover the cost of gathers.

“There are more horses on the range than it is intended to support,” said Ben Nadolski, policy adviser and legislative liaison with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. “I am not hearing remove all the horses from the range. People just want it managed to the appropriate management level.”

At one point, rural ranchers in Utah sued the BLM over the lack of removals, but that case was settled.

It’s aggravating for Beaver County rancher Mark Wintch, who is another person who doesn’t believe the horses that roam on the range near his property are wild.

“A horse is just a livestock animal, it is a domesticable animal. It is basically a feral animal.”

He says some wild horse organizations like to pit the issue as livestock versus horses, but to him it is about the condition of the land.

At one point he was supposed to be able to run 500 head of cattle, but he has dropped that to 330 head.

“That was not done by the BLM, that was done by Mark, because there was no feed.”

Some years, he hasn’t put any cattle out.

“I didn’t want to see my animals die.”

Nationally, the BLM says the assertion that wild horse gathers are taking place to make more room on the range for livestock is pure myth.

It says that livestock grazing on BLM-managed land has declined by about 31% since 1971, when the Free Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act was passed. The forage units dropped from 12.8 million to 8.8 million as of fiscal year 2017.

Wintch says he doesn’t blame the BLM for the wild horse and burro issue, but Congress, which he says lacks the political grit to take effective steps to allow the federal agency greater management control, and funding.

“If you want to put the blame at anybody’s feet it is Congress, which is breaking its own law,” he said.

Wlild horses run into a trap after being herded into it by a helicopter during the Bureau of Land Management’s Range Creek horse gather near Wellington, Carbon County, on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019.
Wlild horses run into a trap after being herded into it by a helicopter during the Bureau of Land Management’s Range Creek horse gather near Wellington, Carbon County, on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Ranching, wild horses and unicorns

Wintch and Beaver County Commissioner Tammy Pearson run land that, between their two properties, the Frisco herd occupies.

“There is going to be an ecosystem crash or an ecological disaster if we don’t get those numbers down to an appropriate management level,” Pearson said.

Wintch echoed that concern.

“We like to see the elk and the deer. We like nature because it is part of us. It is not that we don’t want the wild horses. All I have personally ever asked is to get the animals to the population the BLM is supposed to.”

Wintch thinks the only palatable solution the public will accept certainly isn’t slaughter, but a recent proposal called the Path Forward which embraces an accelerated schedule of gathers, stepped up fertility control and better adoption promotion.

In the interim, as funding for the program falls short of the $50 million ask to Congress, the problem continues to go unsolved.

For years, he and his family have spent thousands of dollars, leveraged by federal money, to do reseeding and other rangeland improvements, only to see that lost by the destruction of wild horse herds.

Between him and Pearson, they’ve hauled water and put out food for the horses because the land couldn’t support them.

Pearson said she’s reduced her grazing allotments on behalf of the horses.

“We’ve volunteered for 20 years to let the horse herd have a bigger share of the range,” she said. “We are the only ones out there cutting ice and making sure the horses have enough water to drink. You don’t see the advocates out there making sure the horses have enough water and food.”

Pearson said for many groups, wild horses are a money-making tool.

“Their whole entire goal is fundraising for their organizations,” she said. “They don’t care about the horses and probably believe in unicorns.”

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