Thousands of of wild horses across the western U.S. could soon be slaughtered as the federal agency that oversees their protection ponders how to control their exploding population amid proposed budget cuts.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has rounded up thousands of wild horses across 10 states, from Colorado to California, under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, in an effort to contain the population that has been expanding by 20 per cent year-over-year.
“To carry out this mission, the BLM controls herd growth through the application of fertility measures, such as birth control, and through the periodic removals of excess animals and the placement of those animals into private care,” the agency’s mandate outlines.
Under the Act, Congress routinely approved federal budgets that specifically outlawed the sale of any wild horses for slaughter.
But the rising costs of managing wild horses on ranges and in federal holding pens has affected the agency’s ability to maintain populations — opening the door for some animals to be sold for slaughter.
A report by Congress’ General Accounting Office in August found that the BLM removed nearly 135,000 horses from ranges between 2000 and 2016 but the population on the range doubled and the number of horses in holding facilities increased seven-fold.
BLM asserts that U.S. rangeland can sustain fewer than 27,000 horses and burros, but there are more than 72,000 wild horses on the rangeland and about 46,000 in holding facilities.
Over the past eight years, the BLM’s wild-horse budget has more than doubled — from US$36.2 million in 2008 to $80.4 million in 2017.
Under President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget, the agency’s resources could be slashed by $10 million.
If Congress approves Trump’s cuts, it could remove the requirements that buyers guarantee the animals won’t be resold for slaughter.
Horse slaughterhouses are prohibited in the U.S. but legal in many other countries, including Canada, Mexico and parts of Europe where horse meat is considered a delicacy.
For decades ranchers have demanded federal officials to take more action to contain populations, as horses compete with cattle and sheep for forage, forcing ranchers to move their herds hundreds of miles away to find pastures.
Many horse protection advocates say contraception is the only realistic and humane solution to limit horse populations they feel have more right to roam the range than federally subsidized livestock.
Activists have attempted to halt roundups in various states by filing lawsuits against the bureau.
Earlier this month, a U.S. District judge denied a request by the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign and two wildlife photographers to halt the roundup in Wyoming over how the agency calculated the number of horses captured.
The judge cited a failure by the advocates to show that allowing the roundup to continue would cause irreparable harm.
Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, said BLM’s current plan could put the horses on the brink of extinction.
“America can’t be great if these national symbols of freedom are destroyed,” she said.
— With files from Global News