Five mustangs pounded across the high desert recently, their dark manes and tails giving shape to the wind. Pursued by a helicopter, they ran into a corral – unwilling recruits in an emotional debate over whether euthanasia should be used to thin a captive herd that already numbers 30,000.
The champions of wild mustangs have long portrayed them as the victims of ranchers who preferred cattle on the range, middlemen who wanted to make a buck selling them for horsemeat, and misfits who shot them for sport. But the wild horse today is no longer automatically considered deserving of extensive protections.
Some environmentalists and scientists have come to see the mustangs, which run wild from Montana to California, as top-of-the-food-chain bullies, invaders whose hooves and teeth disturb the habitats of endangered tortoises and desert birds.
Even the language has shifted. In a 2006 article in Audubon magazine, wild horses lost their poetry and were reduced to “feral equids.”
“There's not just horses out there, there's other critters, from the desert turtle in the south to the bighorn sheep in the north,” said Paula Morin, the author of the book “Honest Horses.”
“We've come a long way in our awareness of the web of life and maintaining the whole ecology,” Morin said, adding, “We do the horses a disservice when we set them apart.”
Environmentalists' attitudes toward the horses have evolved so far that some are willing to say what was heresy a few years ago: that euthanasia is acceptable if the alternatives are boarding the mustangs for life at taxpayers' expense or leaving them to overpopulate, damage the range and die of hunger or thirst.
The federal Bureau of Land Management, the legal custodian of the wild horses and burros, recently proposed euthanization. For years, the bureau has been running the Adopt-A-Horse program, selling mustangs from the range to those who would care for them. But 30,000 once-wild horses were never adopted and are being boarded by the agency at facilities in Kansas and Oklahoma (another 33,000 run wild). As feed and gas grow more expensive, the rate of adoptions plummets.
Boarding costs ran to $21 million last year and are expected to reach $26 million this year, out of a $37 million budget for the bureau's Wild Horse and Burro Program, which is intended to protect the animals. And drought lingers here in northern Nevada, where the mustangs were rounded up on a recent weekend morning to prevent them from starving.
The bureau “can't do a good job of taking care of horses on the range if they have to take care of all the horses off the range,” said Nathaniel Messer, a professor of veterinary science at the University of Missouri and a former member of the federal Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Committee.
Steven Davis, an emeritus professor of animal science at Oregon State University, said: “Many of the wild horse supporters claim that the horses have a right to be there. I reject that argument.” He added: “They damage the water holes. They damage the grasses, the shrubs, the bushes, causing negative consequences for all the other plants and critters that live out there.”
For groups formed to protect the horses, the specter of euthanasia as a solution remains anathema. “It's not acceptable to the American public,” said Virginie Parant, a lawyer who is the director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign.
After Rep. Nick Rahall II, D-W.Va., the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, raised questions this month about the euthanasia proposal, the bureau agreed to make no decision until after completion of a congressional audit of the program, which is due in September.