(Opinion) — When I reached Ginger Kathrens on her cell phone, she was standing on top of Montana’s Pryor Mountains looking down on a majestic herd of wild horses. When she described the scene I immediately wished I could have been standing next to her.
“I’m looking at this great huge snow bank that covers this alpine meadow and it feeds this clear crystal pond below,” she said. “The horses are coming down in family groups, one by one. I think if everyone could see this rich family, you know …” Her voice trailed off during a long pause. “It takes your breath away.”
That wonderful scene, featuring an American icon symbolizing the spirit of freedom in the West, could be erased forever if President Donald Trump gets his way. Kathrens said she doubts he will, but added that you never know what could happen in today’s scary political climate.
Kathrens, a filmmaker and wild horse rescuer, has made several documentaries capturing what has happened to the wild horses of the West since Congress unanimously passed the Wild Horse and Burro Protection Act of 1971.
“The people who passed it never, ever thought it would come to this — the slaughter of thousands of healthy animals,” she said. “I do think the public considers this hideous, cruel and unthinkable. I think the only thing that stands between the killing of the American wild horses is the American public.”
In an effort to save $10 million a year, the president submitted a budget that calls for unrestricted sales of wild horses on the range in 10 Western states, including Wyoming. Animal rights supporters know that these horses will be sold and transported to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada, where they will be viciously killed by workers and the meat sent to European countries where it is considered a delicacy.
That’s what has happened to an unknown number of horses sold to people under a Bureau of Land Management adoption program. They promised to properly care for them under the protections guaranteed by the 1971 law. The United States has banned slaughterhouses, but the BLM has been unable to completely stop the practice of shipping wild horses to our North American neighbors for slaughter that’s legal in those countries.
The “unrestricted” sale of the animals under Trump’s plan could wipe out thousands of wild horses, Kathrens said. In 2015, officials discovered that Colorado rancher Tom Davis was sold 1,800 wild horses by the Bureau of Land Management that he shipped to Mexico to be killed.
“It’s almost unthinkable what could happen,” Kathrens said. “There are going to be a lot more Tom Davises if Trump’s proposal is approved.” Only now, the rancher’s cruel treatment of wild horses would no longer be illegal.
No funding to enforce existing law
Kathrens charged that the protection program has never been adequately funded, but added she respects the BLM crews that are responsible for round-ups in Wyoming’s Red Desert so the wild animals can be adopted. “These are good people,” she said. “I know that they don’t want healthy horses put to death.”
Kathrens said the use of contraceptive vaccines in the wild and in government holding pens where about 45,000 wild horses are kept have been successful despite the claims of opponents who have questioned and ridiculed the method. “Everyplace it’s been used it has worked,” she said.
“Last year the BLM used 400 doses of the vaccine throughout the entire West,” Kathrens said, noting that the low number would hardly make a dent in reducing the wild horse population that the powerful ranching lobby has claimed is ruining the leased rangeland where they feed their cattle. Funding for population control is so low, she said, it doesn’t even come close to 1 percent of the BLM’s budget.
The federal government estimates there are about 73,000 wild horses on the open range. Kathrens said the BLM claims only a population up to 26,700 is sustainable, which is why so many have been shipped to holding pens scattered in several states where their care costs $50 million per year. While she doubts the accuracy of those numbers and wonders “where did they pull those out of,” she said the population is hardly anything when compared to the millions of cattle that ranchers raise on public land.
“Prior to Trump, the land was leased for $2.02 a month per cow-calf pair, and as soon as he took office it was reduced to $1.87,” Kathrens noted, adding that the paltry amount is far lower than the actual fair market value of the land.
“In Montana it costs us $50 per month for every horse we have that’s been rescued from the Pryor Mountain herd,” she noted. “The taxpayers are losing a lot of money. Something’s very wrong here.”
There’s no doubt that the federal government is subsidizing ranchers while being lobbied to literally wipe out herds of wild horses that in reality offer them little competition for grazing. Allowing the horses to be slaughtered, even if it is in other countries, should be considered a national tragedy. But it isn’t because the ranchers have managed to successfully portray themselves as victims battling the federal government.
If she could have her way, Kathrens said, she would allow all geldings now kept in BLM holding pens to be repatriated back to their herds. That strategy would cut in half the expense of maintaining the wild horses in holding pens, she said, and allow more mares to be sent where there are no stallions in the 20 million acres that have been taken away from wild horse use.
She’s at a loss to explain how ranchers can claim that wild horses are overpopulating the Western ranges. “Let’s say the 73,000 number of horses in the wild is correct,” Kathrens said. “When divided over 10 states, that’s only 7,300 per state. They don’t even have 150 to 200 horses in more than 70 percent of the herds, which doesn’t even achieve the minimum for the genetic viability of the herds.”
Kathrens said she testified at a congressional hearing on wild horses a year ago, and she became upset when she listened to Wyoming’s then-congresswoman, Rep. Cynthia Lummis, “purr as she said euthanasia was a wonderful way to die.”
Trump’s proposal to allow thousands of horses to be butchered doesn’t surprise me, considering his already outrageous short presidential history of reneging on the U.S.’s signing of the Paris Accord on climate change, gutting of critical federal environmental protections, and just about everything he’s done since voters made the mistake of handing him the keys to the White House.
If Trump is really that intent on saving the federal government $10 million, he should just skip a couple of weekend trips to the “Southern White House” at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
But for those who support his proposed treatment of our nation’s precious, irreplaceable wild horses, I have a question: What the hell is wrong with you people?