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Sunday, March 22, 2009

The clock is ticking to save the American wild horse

Reposted with Thanks to: Linda

Run Wild, Run Free



Buzzing helicopters run fatigued and panicked horses into corrals
Sheryl Crow and adopted Mustang, Colorado
Documentary filmmaker James Kleinert
Madeleine Pickens hopes to create a sanctuary for the wild horses currently held by the Bureau of Land Management.

The race to save the American wild horse is-on and the clock is ticking.
Once upon a time, the wild mustang roamed the plains of what is today Texas in such great numbers that maps of the state from the 1700s mark certain areas with the simple line: “Vast Herds of Wild Horses. ”

“The wild horse is . . . our loyal partner, the one in whose hoof sparks this country was born,” states Deanne Stillman, author of Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, which details how the role of this indigenous species has grown with the nation, from horses as allies of the early Native Americans to horses used to transport soldiers during the Civil War. Stillman adds, “We may be fighting wars around the world, but in the West, we are at war with ourselves. As the wild horse goes, so goes a piece of America. ”

Such is the tragic tale of the American wild horse, whose continued existence is in danger as the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) contemplates a plan of mass slaughter of this blazing icon of freedom. Claiming that the horses compete with cattle for grazing space on Western public lands and must be removed—and bowing to the ranching lobby, which has strong ties to Washington—the BLM has rounded up more than 33,000 wild horses in recent years from federally owned land. In what the BLM calls a “gather,” buzzing helicopters run fatigued and panicked horses into corrals. The horses are then taken to holding pens, where they are sold or put up for adoption, and often end up abused, neglected, or in a slaughterhouse, to be sold as food abroad.

This is an ignoble end, opponents say, for a majestic animal that originated in North America more than 55 million years ago, eventually spreading to Asia and Europe via the Bering Land Bridge. In the 16th century, the horse was reintroduced to the continent by the Spanish conquistadors.

“The wild horse is a stunning creature,” says James Kleinert, a Colorado-based documentarian who is part Seneca. “I have ridden to Wounded Knee in the middle of winter,” he says, “and I have experienced the resilience of the wild horse on these rides. It is absolutely amazing.” The animals inspired Kleinert’s 2007 film Saving the American Wild Horse, which features powerful pleas for the mustang’s survival by the likes of singer Sheryl Crow, who lives in Tennessee and owns a mustang, and actor Viggo Mortensen, who was introduced to the plight of the wild horse while filming Hidalgo.

More than two million mustang roamed the West at the end of the 19th century, but now only 25,000 to 30,000 remain. Recognizing their dwindling numbers, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, which protected them from inhumane roundups on public lands in Western states and prevented their sale for slaughter (however, the act still stated that “excess horses” could be removed). But in 2004, Conrad Burns, then a Republican senator from Montana, spearheaded an amendment that removed all protection for wild horses over the age of 10, and mandated that “unadoptable horses” be sold without limitation, including for slaughter. Between 1971 and 2006, up to 200,000 wild horses and burros were removed by Department of the Interior agencies such as the BLM using the “excess” loophole, and the horses lost 19 million of the acres allocated to them under the 1971 act.

The BLM and pro-slaughter ranchers see the wild horses as a nuisance and an obstacle to cattle grazing. They say that there is an “overpopulation” of wild horses and blame them for overgrazing the land. But these claims are misleading, say horse supporters, citing the fact that domestic cattle outnumber wild horses by a 1:150 ratio. While there are fewer than 30,000 wild horses remaining in 10 states, up to 4.5 million cattle occupy the same lands. What’s more, a study by the General Accounting Office showed that the overgrazing problem was actually caused by poorly managed domestic cattle herds.

Chief among the opponents of the BLM’s policy is Madeleine Pickens, wife of Texas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens. “These are young mares with their foals in tow going into the slaughterhouses,” she told RL in an interview from her West Coast home. “They are not all old and unwanted horses. ”

Pickens agrees that part of the problem is misinformation. When she first saw videotapes of the roundups, she says, “I was beside myself. I didn’t know this was going on in our country,” she says. “The wild horse is a national treasure!”

Since then, Pickens has stepped in and proposed a plan that might just save the horses. At the very least, her idea has convinced the BLM to grant the penned-up horses—whose fate will be decided this year—a stay of execution. In November, Pickens brought the idea to Capitol Hill, where it was met with a positive response by politicians. She is trying to create a million-acre sanctuary where all the captive mustangs can be released. (Pickens is presently negotiating with owners to buy land in three different Western locales.) “This is a John Wayne ending where the horses can return to the range and everyone will be happy,” says Pickens. “We are just waiting on Washington. ”

Tom Gorey, a spokesman for the BLM, confirmed that the bureau met with Pickens in the first half of January, and added, “I can’t go into any detail, but I can say that we welcome her offer and we are very positive about it. ”

While Pickens is generally optimistic about the prospect of cooperation with the new presidential administration, Kleinert is less upbeat about Barack Obama’s selection of Colorado senator Ken Salazar as Secretary of the Interior. Salazar is a rancher who has supported the BLM’s policy regarding wild horses.

Kleinert is in the process of finishing a feature-length film about the wild horse called Disappointment Valley: A Modern Day Western, which he intends to show at international film festivals later this year. While the first film was a “call to action,” he says, this one delves deeper into the issues and offers up possible solutions.

“We’ve got to pass new legislation as soon as possible to restore the protection these horses had under the 1971 act, and the BLM needs to implement management-in-the-wild policies,” says Kleinert. Of Pickens’s plan, he says, “I think this is a noble step on behalf of Mrs. Pickens. On the other hand, we cannot let the BLM off the hook.” Virginie Parant, an attorney and Director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, concurs: “We are grateful to Madeleine Pickens and her efforts. Her plan is a positive development, but it cannot be used by the BLM to privatize wild horses. Those horses belong on our public lands. ”

If you would like to help save the American wild horse, write to your senator or congressman about the issue and ask that they vote in favor of Madeline Pickens’s plan and vote to restore the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. For more information on the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign or for additional information on how to help, visit


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