House passes wild horse bill despite opposition

Jul 24, 2009

House passes wild horse bill despite opposition

The House of Representatives, on a 239-185 vote, recently passed a bill changing how the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is allowed to manage the nation’s wild horse population. Known as the Restore our American Mustangs Act, or ROAM, the bill specifically prohibits BLM from slaughtering captive wild horses or selling them to owners who intend to have them slaughtered. In addition, the bill also sets a goal to expand horse range in the West by 19 million acres.

The bill, which passed July 17, was introduced by Natural Resources Committee chairman Nick Rahall, D-WV, in response to a report from the General Accountability Office (GAO) last November that pointed out that BLM is now managing nearly as many horses in captivity as it is in the wild. According to BLM, some 30,000 horses are currently being housed in short- or long-term holding facilities, a population that far exceeds the number of people willing to adopt them. Caring for these horses cost the taxpayers about $27 million last year, roughly three-quarters of the wild horse program’s operating budget. In addition, BLM estimates that there are still at least 37,000 wild horses and burros in the wild. According to a BLM fact sheet, the target population that provides the best chance for a healthy population in balance with other resource uses should not exceed 26,600 head. In light of the overpopulation and budget problems faced by BLM, the GAO report recommended that they examine their options with regard to horse management, pointing out that humane slaughter is permissible under amendments made to the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, as is the sale "without limitations" of horses older than 10, or that have been passed up for adoption more than three times. By the end of last year, BLM officials had expressed a willingness to utilize one or both of these options.

The new bill removes all possibility of slaughter for healthy animals, instead calling for measures such as sterilization and a more aggressive adoption program to mitigate the problem.

"The status quo is a national disgrace," said Rahall in support of his bill. "It is a disgrace to our heritage."

In a release last June, BLM indicated they were supportive of sterilization as a means of population control and have made steps in that direction. However, they also point to the obvious difficulties associated with handling a wild population as a major hurdle in enacting a functional program.

The majority of House Republicans opposed the bill, both for scientific and economic reasons. Rrior to the vote, Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-WY, voiced her concerns that the ROAM legislation focuses on one species, without considering the complexities of the range land.

"The only effective tools we have to manage wild horses and to protect the ecosystems in which they live is to control their numbers, and control the area they can roam," said Lummis. "(The bill) removes these tools, and therefore elevates the status of non-native horses above every other native species, plant or animal that lives on the range."

Other representatives were quick to point out that the bill’s estimated $200 million price tag is a heavy burden for an already strained budget to bear. Originally, the Congressional Budget Office placed the bill’s cost at upwards of $700 million, but that number was reduced after language in the bill was changed to make land acquisition for horse range a ‘goal’ rather than a mandate. For many, the thought of acquiring any new federal land for horses was seen as extravagant.

"We have already dedicated to wild horses and wild burros an amount of land that’s owned by the public that is the size of the state of New York," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-UT. In his opposition, Bishop also voiced his concern that, because of the vague language of the bill regarding this goal, priority could be given to horses over all other uses of federal lands throughout the West.

Given the current economic situation, many congressmen felt they were wasting time that could have been spent on other issues. According to Minority Leader John Boehner, R-OH, even debating the bill was an insult to the American people.

"It doesn’t make any sense that we’re debating a welfare program about wild horses when the American people really want to know, ‘where are the jobs?’" said Boehner.

The legislation will now be passed to the Senate where it must be passed before becoming law, a prospect some livestock industry lobbyists see as unlikely. — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent