The Department of the Interior, under Secretary Ryan Zinke, isn’t mincing words or hedging its political bets. At least not so far. Last week, its leaders signaled that the department may dismantle a rule to restrict ruthless predator killing practices on some 20 million acres of National Park Service lands in Alaska. In his proposed budget for the department, Zinke indicated that he wants all options on the table in terms of wild horse and burro management in the West, including mass slaughter of the animals. And that came just a short time after the agency announced that it would delist grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region, virtually guaranteeing the first trophy hunting season on bears there in 40 years.
Taking aim at wild horses and burros in Bureau of Land Management (BLM) holdings, wolves on national preserves, and grizzly bears around Yellowstone should stir up just about every animal advocate in the nation. Announcing them in a series, with each one representing a turnaround in U.S. policy, is a provocation. It’s something of a declaration of war on wildlife and also on the animal protection movement.
Remember, on his first day in office, Zinke nullified a director’s order from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to stop the use of poisonous lead ammunition on national wildlife refuges. And it was three months ago that President Trump signed Republican-led legislation to reverse a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rule that restricted land-and-shoot hunting of grizzly bears and denning of wolves on tens of millions of acres of national wildlife refuges in Alaska. Very few Americans supported that change in policy, but Republican lawmakers charged ahead with it anyway. Now the administration is signaling that it may indeed target a nearly identical rule applying to the same species on an even more special set of lands – 20 million acres managed by the National Park Service.
Grizzly bears may also be under the gun in the lower 48 states as a result of decisions flowing from the new leadership at the Department of the Interior. If the courts don’t reverse the agency’s delisting decision, wildlife management agencies in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming have already declared their intention to open up trophy-hunting seasons on the bears. They took this action despite 650,000 comments opposing delisting, broad condemnation of the idea among wildlife scientists, and the disapproval of 125 Native American tribes.
Secretary Zinke has also said that changing wild horse and burro management is a priority, but he’s gone out of his way to dismiss the value and practicality of fertility control programs pioneered by The HSUS and leading wildlife scientists.
Zinke got an assist last week from the House Appropriations Committee, which adopted an amendment to the Interior appropriations bill offered by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, to lift the long-term prohibition on the destruction of healthy wild horses and burros. This bill creates a pathway for the killing of animals currently in holding facilities and on the range. The impetus for this amendment came from the Department of the Interior, which issued a request for the authority to slaughter or euthanize thousands of our nation’s iconic wild horses and burros.
For the past 20 years, the BLM has relied on rounding up and removing horses and burros from the range as their primary population management strategy, despite pleas from the horse protection community, the National Academy of Sciences, and Congress to shift their management strategy away from removals to something that would actually work to solve rangeland problems. Serious-minded voices called for fertility control, as a way of actively managing populations but keeping horses and burros on the range.
The agency never heeded this advice, except in very limited applications. As a result, rangeland populations have indeed continued to increase, as have captive populations in pens, who got there through government round-ups.
No one wants to hear that the agency and Congress are advocating for the mass killing of animals to save money. Instead, the agency and Congress are trotting out the canard that mass killing is good for the horses and burros – kind of like saving a village by destroying it. They’re regurgitating unsubstantiated allegations that animals on the range are starving en masse. It’s a case of fake news applied to the circumstances of 70,000 wild horses and burros on more than 200 million acres of public land.
We were so concerned about this justification for mass execution that we’ve spent the last few months looking into whether we could find any evidence to support the claim. We’ve been taking a look ourselves, and asked horse advocates who track the horses, wildlife photographers who harmlessly shoot the animals, and other horse lovers who get a look at the animals on the range. Everybody has answered the query the same way: there’s no mass starvation, and no great change in the circumstance of the animals in their habitats.
There’s one common denominator to all of these turnabouts; the agency is favoring special interests over public interest. That’s most evident on the attacks on the two Alaska rulemakings, but that favoritism is also on display when it comes to the management of wild horses and grizzly bears in the lower 48 states. Write to the agency and let officials know you’re on to them. It’s early in the administration, and there’s plenty of time to change course. The American public will laud them if they do, but it won’t forget if they continue to pursue these severe anti-wildlife policies.