Slaughter ’Em: The Trump Plan to Solve the West's Wild Horse Problem

The proposed budget for the federal wild horse program would remove restrictions on sales of "excess" mustangs to slaughterhouses.
The proposed budget for the federal wild horse program would remove restrictions on sales of "excess" mustangs to slaughterhouses. Bureau of Land Management
There are so many provocative aspects to the Trump administration's spending cuts, and how that budget-slashing will affect long-established protections for public lands, wildlife and natural resources, that critics of the plan have been left sputtering in all directions, reacting to one outrage after another. But one particularly startling example, the effort to scale back the Bureau of Land Management's increasingly costly program for managing America's wild horses and burros, sums up where we're heading.

The Trump plan? Let them eat horsemeat.

The proposed 2018 BLM budget would cut $10 million from the wild-horse program and lift restrictions on the sale of "excess" animals to slaughterhouses. It would also remove a ban on euthanasia of unadopted equines that's been in force since 2010.

Officially, the agency has declared this move as a welcome development to allow the horse program an "expanded suite of management tools." Officials have also acknowledged that the current program is unsustainable; under the Obama administration, the program's costs more than doubled, from $36.2 million in 2008  to $80.4 million in 2017, as Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar tried to implement an ill-fated plan to increase the gathers of mustangs and place them in long-term holding facilities. The result was that there were nearly as many horses in the pens and pastures of government contractors as the 45,000 or so that are estimated to be on public lands.

In 2013, a report from the National Academy of Sciences eviscerated the Salazar plan, exposing the fuzzy math behind its estimates of horse populations and contending that the removal program was actually contributing to overpopulation on the range by reducing competition for forage. Several researchers called for increased use of sterilization and other birth-control methods as a more humane and effective form of herd management.

The new administration's approach is — no surprise — not exactly rooted in science, either. The budget cuts to the program will decrease, not increase, funds available for birth control, while encouraging sales to slaughterhouses — something that went on covertly in the Obama years and resulted in at least one memorable scandal, involving a Colorado livestock hauler who shipped more than 1,700 "protected" yet untraceable horses out of state, possibly to slaughterhouses in other countries.

Under the new regime, such entrepreneurs could operate much more openly. The prospect has generated revulsion and denunciations from horse advocacy groups, including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "This proposal represents a dereliction of the Interior Department’s responsibility to protect our nation’s wild horses and an affront to public opinion and our shared values,” stated Matt Bershadker, ASPCA president and CEO, in a press release. “Wild horses can and should be humanely managed on-range using simple fertility control, yet the BLM would rather make these innocent animals pay for draconian budget cuts with their very lives.”
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast