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In our opinion: While wild horses roam the West, Congress does nothing on a problem it doesn’t understand

Wild horses graze beside and cross Stark Road at Dugway Proving Ground on Friday, April 26, 2019.
Wild horses graze beside and cross Stark Road at Dugway Proving Ground on Friday, April 26, 2019.
Al Vogel, Dugway Proving Ground

Wild horses are causing ecological disasters across 10 Western states, and their populations are growing so quickly that it would cost $5 billion and take at least 15 years of concerted effort to get the problem under control, according to wildlife and rangeland experts.

This little-understood problem combines two uniquely Western considerations seemingly at irreconcilable odds with each other: The need to preserve and manage the area’s fragile ecology and the culturally sacred nature of the horse, which was so instrumental in helping to tame the West and guarantee the survival of those who migrated here.

In a thorough and compelling four-part series this week, the Deseret News’ Amy Joi O’Donoghue reports on this problem, its long-term implications and possible solutions.

What is clear is that Congress has done little to manage a problem most of its members probably don’t understand, and that the solutions lie in incentivizing and encouraging efforts, some already underway, to control fertility and encourage adoptions.

That will take public money, too, but the price would be worthwhile if it stops the further degradation of some rangelands experts say already have passed the point of recovery.

Americans love horses. That love is ingrained in literature, art and the history of the land and its people. The passage of time has stamped a romanticism atop this that belies the seemingly emotionless pragmatism of an earlier age. The last slaughterhouse for horses in the United States closed in 2007, and it’s doubtful the nation ever would be able to muster a mandate to do as Australia does, regularly sending unwanted horses to meat dealers.

Too many organizations exist to loudly oppose such a thing, and the practical reality is that the culture isn’t likely ever to consider horses as livestock, the way it tolerates the slaughter of cows, pigs and other animals for consumption.

Last May, a summit in Reno brought together 90 different organizations to mull a plan called the “Path Forward.” It would accelerate roundups to include about 20,000 horses per year, expand fertility controls and provide more off-range facilities to promote adoptions. The BLM already offers an adoption incentive of $1,000 — $500 at the time of adoption and the rest when the owner takes title of the animal.

Congress has so far not provided enough funding for this full program. Also, the Path Forward is vehemently opposed by some organizations that see roundups as inhumane.

The BLM also is working with groups that try to tame and train wild horses to make them more adoptable. Some advocates say there is more the federal government could do to promote adoptions in the Eastern United States, where horses typically sell for much more than in the West.

Every plan has its opponents. Even some Native American tribes have been criticized for alleged inhumane solutions to the problem. As one Utah politician said, “nobody wants to do anything because it is just an emotional place.”

And yet, as the series makes clear, doing nothing isn’t an option.

The first step is recognition. Many in the West understand the problem of a quickly multiplying population of wild horses. Many in Congress and the rest of the nation do not.

Solutions that satisfy everyone probably don’t exist, but the Path Forward and other private endeavors seem to have the right idea, so long as they are monitored to ensure the animals are treated humanely. Fertility control and adoption incentives seem to be the best hope for keeping the animals that helped tame the West from destroying much of what remains of its rangeland.