Wild horse debacle: BLM under fire over roundup deaths, castrations

Months after the Bureau of Land Management's controversial roundup of wild horses in Nevada last winter, official counts of the number of animals injured and killed in the operation continue to rise. And activists opposing the BLM efforts to reduce free-ranging herds have just released new photos and accounts of ongoing castration of mustangs taken in the roundup, despite a pending court case seeking to return the horses to public rangelands.

BLM officials claim that the 37,000 horses and burros on federal lands have exceeded their food supply and face starvation. The roundups are part of a $100-million plan by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to relocate herds on yet-to-be-acquired "preserves" in the Midwest and East.

But opponents charge that the midwinter roundup, targeting a large herd on the 500,000-acre Calico range, has been an unmitigated disaster.

A new report by the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign states that of the 1,922 horses captured by the BLM over a six-week period, 86 have died. Dozens more were injured in the helicopter-led stampede or in holding pens, and forty pregnant mares have aborted because of related stress.

Nearly half of the deaths have been blamed on diet or metabolic failure, which the AWHPC attributes to "physiological changes induced by the trauma of the roundup." Photos have also been posted on websites of moldy hay being trucked to feed the horses in the pens, a repast that can kill horses or make them seriously ill. The organization estimates that it will cost taxpayers $800,000 a year to "warehouse" the horses "while cost-effective on-the-range management strategies are ignored."

The actual death count could be higher than the numbers provided by BLM. Outside observers have had limited access to the holding pens and have recently released photos that suggest mustangs are being castrated despite a pending lawsuit seeking the horses' release. "Since visitation is denied except for a brief two hours on Sundays, it causes your 'management' practices to appear less transparent," reads one caustic e-mail Ginger Kathrens, a documentary filmmaker and executive director of the Colorado Springs-based Cloud Foundation, recently sent to a BLM official.

There are now almost an equal number of wild horses in captivity in short-term holding facilities as there are still roaming public lands. The Cloud Foundation estimates that, since BLM began actively managing the herds in the early 1970s, more than a hundred herds have been eliminated and the total population of wild horses still on the range has been cut in half.

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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