On the face of it, it is just an auction of 35 horses in a small Western town. In cowboy country, this is not news. But the sale on 11 and 12 June near Great Falls, Montana, is one of the most visible signs of an increasingly controversial practice.
The Montana horses were born in the wild. If they had not been captured, they would have spent their lives ranging across the vast wildernesses of the West. Indeed, the horses have become a romantic symbol of these onetime frontier states.
Now the government agency that manages public land, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), has begun mass roundups because it says the horses are putting themselves and the ranges at risk. Ranching interests have lined up behind the BLM. They are opposed by a variety of activists, including an animal rights group that has brought a lawsuit with the aim of halting the round-ups. A verdict is expected at any time.
The BLM estimates that there are 38,400 wild horses and donkeys roaming on lands under its aegis in 10 Western states. They are protected by a 1971 law, and are descended from animals that were released or escaped as successive waves of colonisers, explorers and settlers rolled over these territories. The horses even made an impact in Hollywood: they featured in 1961′s “The Misfits,” which was Marilyn Monroe’s last completed movie before she died. Her character, a melancholic divorcee, becomes romantically entangled with a Nevada cowboy who captures and sells horses. (“I hunt these horses to keep myself free, so I’m a free man,” he explains to her.)
According to the BLM, there are around 12,000 excess horses on public land, based on estimates of how many animals the ranges can support without becoming degraded (if that happens, the horses’ own health could suffer). Earlier this year, 1,922 horses were removed from an area of Nevada known as the Calico Mountains Complex, with helicopters corralling the animals across the scrub and into pens. The BLM hopes to move many of the horses to reserves in the Midwest and East.
The organisation that brought the lawsuit, In Defense of Animals, charges that the BLM’s management estimates are flawed, and that instead of moving horses, mares could be injected with a temporary contraceptive drug called PZP to lower their numbers. What’s more, it says that horses are being moved so cattle have more forage.
“It’s quite the scam that’s going on,” IDA campaigner Deniz Bolbol tells Monocle.
That’s a contentious point. The Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, for its part, denies that cattle are benefiting at the expense of horses.
“Populations of wild horses have either maintained or increased above designated levels, whereas cattle grazing has been reduced by 30 per cent since 1971,” says executive director Meghan Brown.
That may be the case, but with protests mounting, the BLM is going to have to argue its corner with a little more verve.