Today, the House voted handily in favor of a bill, H.R. 1018 introduced by Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), to provide sweeping new protections for wild horses and burros inhabiting public lands in the West. The vote was 239-185.
Rahall’s bill, known as the Restore Our American Mustangs (ROAM) Act and co-authored by Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), comes in response to woeful mismanagement of wild horses and burros by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM). BLM has been rounding up thousands of horses from our public lands, and then adopting out fewer than half of the animals they capture. As a result, BLM is now holding about 31,000 wild horses in captivity, with taxpayers footing the bill. If the program isn’t revamped, there will soon be more wild horses in captivity than in the wild (there are now estimated to be approximately 35,000 horses and burros roaming federal lands in 10 Western states, with a majority of the horses in Nevada and Wyoming).
It’s inhumane for the horses, who are subjected to regular rounds-ups and long-term captivity, and ultimately life-threatening for them because BLM last year claimed it might even resort to slaughtering the animals. It’s also a fiscal mess and it’s spiraling out of control, with two-thirds of all dollars set aside for horses going to feed and house captive wild mustangs and burros. That percentage is expected to increase to 75 percent this year. In short, the program has strayed far from its original purpose, which was to protect wild horses and burros on the range and maintain them as symbols of American culture.
Thanks to a major grant from the Annenberg Foundation, The HSUS has been working with the BLM to expand fertility control as a humane population control tool, which will reduce the need for round-ups and thereby reduce the flow of horses from the range to captive settings. The Rahall bill, if approved by the Senate and signed by President Obama, will provide momentum to our efforts, and address other problems with the horse and burro program. The Rahall bill will also ban commercial slaughter of wild horses, reversing a rider pushed by former Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and protecting the animals now in captivity. It has the stated goal of allowing horses to occupy public lands they previously used, but which BLM has closed off to the horses after rounding up entire herds. And finally, Rahall’s bill will also help promote the horse and burro adoption program, so that the current population of captive horses can go to suitable homes and get out of overcrowded holding facilities run by BLM.
In addition to passing H.R. 1018, the House defeated an amendment by Ranking Minority Member Richard “Doc” Hastings (R-Wash.) to narrow the bill and omit critical provisions relating to fertility control, adoption, and range expansion for the horses. That amendment was rejected 348-74.
I was distressed to see House Republican Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) yet again go down to the floor and assail yet another animal welfare bill. Boehner said it was “an insult” to the American people to consider an animal protection bill during the nation’s economic crisis. This is the same man who opposes every animal protection measure—in good times and bad—that comes up for consideration, including efforts to crack down on dogfighting and cockfighting, to halt the trade in exotic pets, and end the trophy hunting of polar bears. The HSUS will do its best to let the American public, and his constituents, know about his dismissive and hostile attitude toward all animals.
Now, it’s on to the Senate, where there will be a tough battle to advance the legislation. But anyone who’s paying attention knows that the status quo is absolutely unacceptable as a matter of fiscal responsibility and animal welfare. Something must be done to stop the waste and abuse.