The Obama administration talks tall about its fresh ideas and new directions. Especially at the Department of the Interior, where Secretary Ken Salazar has vowed to change course from the Bush years and develop sound public-land policy based on science, not political influence -- as detailed in my April feature, "The Zen of Ken."
But there's one group of battered constitutents who don't see much difference between the new boss and the old boss. Advocates for the 37,000 wild horses and burros roaming public lands are still fighting dubious Bureau of Land Management policies that they say are consigning thousands of wild mustangs to holding pens, sending some to their doom -- and decimating entire herds. "We might as well be back in the Bush administration," says filmmaker Ginger Kathrens, who heads up the Colorado Springs-based Cloud Foundation. "Anyone who's studied BLM knows they've zeroed out over a hundred herds. They're managing wild horses to extinction."
During the Bush years, the BLM's wild-horse adoption program became a flimsy excuse for aggressively "thinning out" the wild equine population to appease grazing interests. Older horses that couldn't be readily adopted were slated for slaughterhouses (for more details, see my 2005 feature "Grazin' Hell"). Recently, legislation to protect the horses from commercial sale and slaughter, known as the Restore Our American Mustangs (ROAM) Act, passed the House of Representatives -- but is still under consideration in the Senate.
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Meanwhile, Salazar's BLM is going ahead with more roundups. Six horses died during a "gather" in Idaho last month that reduced a herd of 500 to 130. And Kathrens' group is battling to stop another roundup on September 1 in Montana's Pryor Mountains that some experts say will leave one of the most unique and picturesque herds no longer genetically viable.
The Montana roundup is of particular concern to Kathrens since it happens to be a herd she's tracked for more than a decade, producing two documentaries for PBS that followed a striking pale palomino named Cloud from foal to stallionhood. A third documentary about Cloud is scheduled to air October 25 -- by which time his herd may be all but defunct. The BLM has promised not to corral Cloud -- "the most famous wild horse in the world," Kathrens notes -- but is planning to adopt out at least seventy horses and some foals from a herd of 190.
The roundup is unnecessary and unjustifiable, Kathrens claims, particularly since the horses' range has received abundant rainfall lately and is more than adequate to support the herd at its current numbers. She says she's been unable to meet with Salazar and has met a "blank wall" from polite but unmoved BLM officials. "We need divine intervention at this point, or an executive order from the President," she says.
Horse advocates did have cause to celebrate recently -- an attempt to zero out a small herd in northwest Colorado was halted by a federal judge in Washington last week. But Cloud's relatives are still in danger of being turned into horseburgers. For more on the controversy, check out the Cloud Foundation website and this YouTube video.