The Trump administration's 2018 budget proposal includes big funding reductions for many federal programs, but one particular cut is drawing a lot of attention from animal welfare activists.
The U.S. Department of Interior's budget summary details how the administration wants to slice $10 million from the Wild Horse and Burro Management Program overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The program will spend $80.4 million in 2017 to feed roughly 45,000 of the creatures that have been rounded up and confined in corrals and pastures. The reason this takes place in 10 western states is to prevent them ravaging the range with overgrazing. These wild horses and burros are the descendants of animals that were released by or escaped from Spanish explorers, ranchers, miners, the U.S. cavalry, and Native Americans, and they've long been a colorful reminder of the history of the American West.
A 1971 law put wild horses and burros under the care and protection of the federal government. To help keep the herds from growing too large for federal lands to support, the law also allows wild horses and burros to be adopted by private citizens. In the case of excess animals passed over repeatedly for adoption, the law also empowers federal officials to offer them for sale "without limitation, including through auction to the highest bidder, at local sale yards or other convenient livestock selling facilities."
That last part of the law, technically speaking, would allow wild horses and burros to be sent to slaughterhouses and killed for their meat. For decades, though, horse-friendly legislators have taken care to slip a ban on such sales into the annual federal appropriations bill. (You'll find the current ban in Section 601 of the 2017 legislation.)
Last September, after touring Nevada grassland reportedly denuded by overgrazing, a BLM advisory board recommended lifting restrictions on sales and/or euthanization of those animals that had been passed over for adoption. The ensuing outcry led BLM to release a statement that it had no plans to kill any of the animals.
But now the Trump administration wants to revisit that solution. The Interior's budget document "proposes to give BLM the tools it needs to manage this program in a more cost-effective manner, including the ability to conduct sales without limitation. The budget proposes to eliminate appropriations language restricting BLM from using all of the management options authorized in the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act."
In an email, BLM public affairs specialist Jason Lutterman said that changes were necessary because the existing Wild Horse and Burro program is "unsustainable." Wild horses and burros face starvation and death from lack of water because of overpopulation, and habitat damage forces the animals to leave public lands and venture onto private property — "or even highways," he says — in search of something to eat and drink.
Additionally, most of the corrals or pastures that BLM uses are on private land that the agency must lease. That expense alone — nearly $50 million — eats up most of the Wild Horse and Burro Program's budget.
Lutterman said that BLM hasn't yet developed a plan for selling horses and burros, so it's not possible to say how many would be sold, or how much revenue it might generate. "The BLM's first goal is to find good homes for the wild horses and burros that we gather from overpopulated herds," he says. "To that end, we are increasing our efforts to work with our partners to train and find homes for as many wild horses and burros as possible."
But the Trump administration's move to lift restrictions on sale of wild horses and burros is likely to run into determined opposition from animal welfare activists.
"This proposed budget language is unacceptable," said Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, via text message. "Americans love and value our wild horses. They are part of our history and the culture of the West. Americans won't stand for the brutal slaughter of tens of thousands of these American icons. There is a better way to manage wild horses; the federal government just has to use it."
"If Congress lifts the ban, wild horses and burros in holding facilities will be killed or sold for slaughter," she said.
In addition being able to sell horses and burros, the Trump administration wants Congress to eliminate any other language in the next appropriations bill that would prevent BLM "from using all of the management options" authorized in the original 1971 law. As Roy notes, that would enable officials to euthanize "excess" healthy mustangs and burros to control the population. She's concerned that might lead to mass killing of the remaining wild population — the tens of thousands of animals not yet captured by BLM.
Who would want to eat a horse, anyway? The last horse slaughterhouses in the U.S. closed in 2007, but each year, an average of 137,000 U.S. horses are shipped across the border to facilities in Mexico and Canada, according to the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). While Americans might be repelled by the idea of eating equine flesh, it's sold for human consumption in France, Canada and numerous other countries around the world.