Contraception considered but more culling expected
SYDNEY, Australia; DENVER, Colorado––The brumby issue in Australia and the mustang issue in the U.S. differ chiefly in that the Australian federal government estimates it is dealing with about five times as many wild horses, sharing habitat with livestock and feral camels.
While the U.S. now has nearly 80,000 nominally wild horses, albeit that 60% are in captivity, Australia has 400,000 brumbies, scattered over an area of about the size of the entire Lower 48 states, along with as many as 300,000 feral camels.
The Northern Territory and Queensland, the Australian states with the most wild horses and camels, compare in size to the U.S. Rocky Mountain states––the states each claiming more than a thousand wild horses.
75 million sheep
Queensland alone has an estimated 100,000 wild horses––and 11.7 million of Australia’s 75 million sheep, whose hooves also pound the grasslands, crushing the burrows of endangered native marsupials, depleting water sources and competing with kangaroos for fodder, while the brumbies and camels take the blame for ecological damage.
Except for the matters of scale, and that the U.S. does not have feral camels, the brumby and mustang issues are much the same. In both Australia and North America, horses brought centuries ago by European colonists escaped, thrived, and rapidly overran habitat to which they proved supremely well-adapted.
By the late nineteenth century abundant horses were widely seen as a nuisance by sheep and cattle ranchers both in Australia and the U.S.––and as an economic resource by those who rounded them up for sale to slaughterhouses.
But there were historical differences. Arriving with 16th century Spanish conquistadors, horses in the U.S. encountered predators including pumas, wolves, and grizzly bears.
Having ancestrally emerged in North America, before being extirpated by the Ice Ages, horses in the U.S. had co-evolved with similar predators as they spread across Asia and Europe, before being brought back to North America and were well able to re-establish themselves.
Predation plus competition
Nonetheless, predation plus grazing competition from elk, deer, pronghorn and bison held horse numbers more-or-less in balance with the carrying capacity of the North American habitat, until market hunters in the late 19th century shot bison to the verge of extinction.
Ranchers and government predator control agents serving them then hunted wolves and grizzly bears into endangerment, and hunted pumas into extreme scarcity.
Then, predictably, the horse population exploded, only to be rounded up and slaughtered to near disappearance in the mid-20th century.
Camels were introduced to the U.S. southwest by the U.S. Army as work animals in 1855, but were unpopular with the troops and were sold at auction in 1866. A few reportedly went feral. None were seen, however, after 1891.
Came with First Fleet
Horses arrived in Australia with the First Fleet in 1788. The first written record of horses escaping into the Outback came about 30 years later, but horses may have escaped earlier without the escapes being documented.
Horses in Australia met no significant predators, though dingoes will kill and eat foals when they are left unguarded. Grazing competition from kangaroos was limited by rancher exterminations of ‘roos to make more grass available to sheep and cattle.
The major wild horse “predators” in Australia, other than humans, remain drought and wildfires, distantly followed by accidental encounters with venomous snakes.
In effect, the habitat conditions for brumbies in Australia are still as favorable today––human “predation” pressure aside––as they became for mustangs in North America about 300 years after their arrival.
Horse predators, meanwhile, have largely recovered in mustang range, while the range available to mustangs has been strictly limited by U.S. government policy, codified and reinforced by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses & Burros Act of 1971.
Bureau of Land Management
Only one U.S. government agency, the Bureau of Land Management, is obligated by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses & Burros Act of 1971 to tolerate the presence of wild equines at all. Accordingly more wild horses are believed to be on Bureau of Land Management property than on all other federal lands combined.
The Bureau of Land Management, however, is also obligated by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 to limit the numbers of wild horses on leased grazing land, on behalf of the leaseholders.
Driven out of Horse Heaven
Wild horses and burros are actively excluded from National Parks and National Monuments. The U.S. military tends to be tolerant of wild horses and burros, as are most Native American tribes. Some tribes, however, manage wild horse populations for periodic removal and slaughter. The Yakama Nation, of south-central Washington, has sold wild horses to slaughter at least since 1953, when the Walla Walla Union Bulletin reported that the tribe had hired a helicopter to help round up 7,000 horses from the Horse Heaven Hills near Kennewick. This was among the first recorded uses of helicopters in horse capture.
Most other federal agencies tend to ignore wild horses and burros, but if wild equines become problematic in the view of land managers, the equines are usually shot where found or rounded up and shipped to slaughter.
Feral fears Down Under
Australian government pressure on brumbies tends to be cyclical. As in the U.S., efforts to eradicate wild horses tend to escalate, along with attempts to eradicate other introduced species, whenever public anxiety rises over human immigrants. In the U.S. the concern is usually over immigration from Mexico. In Australia the anxiety centers on immigration from Asia.
Such concern was soaring in 1890, when Banjo Paterson authored The Man from Snowy River, a poem long part of the Australian literary canon, describing a wild horse roundup to recapture a colt who ran away to join a brumby band.
The anti-Asian sentiment of Banjo Paterson’s time culminated in the 1901 adoption of the “White Australia” policy, which barred Asian immigration for seventy years.
The “White Australia” policy fell at last just as crusades against rabbits and dingoes as supposed threats to sheep began expanding into general pogroms against other introduced species, including brumbies.
Since the “White Australia” policy formally ended, roughly half of all immigrants to Australia have come from Asia, raising the Asian share of the population from near invisibility to almost 5%.
Not surprisingly, discouraging Asian immigration and eradicating “alien” species have become obsessions of many of the same Australian political factions. Persecution of “alien” species has intensified exponentially.
The Man from Snowy River
But, as with mustangs in the U.S. west, brumbies have become culturally iconic in Australia, not least through the enduring popularity of The Man from Snowy River, made into hit films in 1920 and 1982. Both mustangs and brumbies may be iconic primarily because of their association with historical efforts to round them up and put them to use, as steeds or as meat, yet much of the public in both the U.S. and Australia likes to know there are wild horses on the range, and hopes to see them when visiting “wild” western or Outback habitat.
Both in the U.S. and Australia, when the public realizes that a wild horse “removal” project involves killing horses, there tends to be political hell to pay.
Australian National Parks & Wildlife Service staff in October 2000 shot 606 feral horses from aircraft at Guy Fawkes River National Park. Some wounded horses suffered for up to nine days before they were found and dispatched.
Initiating brumby extirpation and extermination campaigns since then has tended to require considerable public preparation. Suggestions that aerial gunnery might be used to cull brumbies have been quickly withdrawn, though 135,000 camels were shot from the air and left to rot in 2008-2013 with scant protest.
Brumbies feel the heat
Brumbies today are again under intensified pressure.
“Two fatalities in the Australian state of Queensland have prompted authorities to approve a controversial cull of feral horses on public land,” reported Ashley Donnelly for BBC News/Sydney on October 8, 2015. “A 15-year-old boy was recently killed and his mother critically injured after the car they were travelling in collided with the carcass of a horse. Back in July, a motorcyclist died when he hit a horse on the same highway at Bluewater, north of Townsville.”
But horse/car accidents are surpassingly few compared to car/car accidents, even in the same places. The bigger issues are ecological––or at least are said to be.
Rats, skinks, & bogs
Explained Linda Silmalis, chief reporter for the Sydney Sunday Telegraph, on November 22, 2015, “An estimated 6,000 wild horses roam Kosciuszko National Park. The New South Wales National Parks & Wildlife Service claims increasing population and competition for grazing areas is pushing the wild horses into sensitive wilderness areas, threatening native broad-toothed rats (also called broad-toothed mice), alpine water skinks and the endangered sphagnum bog. Trapping and removal programs have largely failed to curb the rising numbers, with the population estimated to be increasing by 20% a year…With the [current] five-year horse management plan under review, the Government is under pressure to adopt a long-term strategy, given the $3.3 million cost to taxpayers over the past decade of reviews and temporary removal programs.”
Since 2010, Silmalis learned, 2,043 brumbies have been removed from the habitat in question. Of these, Silmalis reported, 567 were adopted out through a program similar to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management wild horse adoption program. “The rest,” Silmalis wrote, “have been trucked to local slaughter yards.”
Of perhaps greater significance in driving brumby removals, however, is the antipathy of nearby sheep and cattle ranchers to the brumby presence.
“Some park neighbors have taken matters into their own hands,” Silmalis mentioned, “with several brumbies recently found shot dead near the Victorian border.”
A New South Wales government panel currently is evaluating options for brumby management in the Snowy Mountains, many of which involve overlapping choices among methods and destinations for horses deemed expendable.
Among the options for management methods, passive trapping by gathering horses in corrals, usually with access to water as bait, is already used to capture wild horses for adoption or sale to slaughter.
Adoption market saturated
More brumbies might be captured if riders were recruited to herd them, as depicted in the poem and film The Man from Snowy River, or if helicopters were used to do the herding.
Increased effort to rehome brumbies has few opponents, but reality is that the market for horse adoptions is already saturated by the existing National Parks & Wildlife Service rehoming program. With drought increasing the cost of feeding a horse, the future prospects for adoptive horse placement are poor.
Sharpshooting & contraception
Alternatives to capturing brumbies include aerial gunnery and sharp-shooting horses from ambush.
Sharp-shooting from ambush could also be used to administer contraceptive injections to mares. This would avoid the difficulty of having to capture and hold each mare, but each mare would have to be injected several times during her anticipated lifetime, and there is as yet no effective means of indelibly marking a mare who has been sterilized with a contraceptive bullet.
Back on the BLM range
All of these are also among the options used in the U.S. for wild horse management, except that in the U.S. helicopters tend to be used more, more horses are captured each year, and more horses are kept in government custody.
Currently the Bureau of Land Management contends that BLM land can support no more than 26,715 horses and burros, but currently hosts about 31,500.
Years of roundups despite little adoption demand have left the Bureau of Land Management holding 47,329 wild horses and burros in pens, as of October 2015.
Opponents of the presence of wild horses on U.S. public lands allege a herd growth rate of 20% or more per year. Reality is that such a high herd growth rate can only occur if the combination of available grass and water and lack of predation on foals produce optimal conditions for successful breeding and foaling.
Thinning the herds, as the Bureau of Land Management does, reduces food competition; killing horse foal predators, as USDA Wildlife Services does routinely to protect livestock, increases the likelihood that foals will mature to reproduce. Thus the present Bureau of Land Management wild horse management program may be increasing rather than reducing the perceived wild horse overpopulation problem.
The Bureau of Land Management has budgeted $11 million for fertility control research through 2020, spokesperson Tom Gorey recently told Tom McGhee of the Denver Post.
Wrote McGhee, “Horse numbers can be controlled using a fertility control drug called porcine zona pellucida immunocontraceptive vaccine, or PZP. Contraception has been a success in the Little Book Cliffs Herd management area, said Marty Felix of Friends of the Mustang, who volunteers with the BLM and administers the drug to horses near Grand Junction. Felix has darted 98 mares since the fertility control program began in 2002.
“Prior to that,” Felix said, “we were having 38 to 41 foals a year. Since we have been using PZP, we have had 11 to 14 foals a year.”
Opposition to contraception
Using contraception to manage wild horses is, however, opposed by several leading wild horse advocacy organizations, including Friends of Animals, which has filed legal petitions to stop deployment of PZP. (See Sex, Drugs, & Wild Horses.) And, in the U.S. as well as in Australia, administering the contraceptive vaccine to enough horses, quickly enough to make a visible difference in range conditions, often enough to maintain the contraceptive effect, poses logistic dilemmas.
Pushed by ranchers and their political allies in Congress to suppress the numbers of wild horses on the range, squeezed by fiscal conservatives to keep the cost of holding captured horses in check, and unable to adopt out wild horses in anything approaching the volume that would be necessary to both satisfy ranchers and stay within viable management budgets, the Bureau of Land Management for decades ignored schemes that relayed horses to slaughter a few at a time through the adoption program.
90% sold to slaughter
Tom Pogacnik, then director of the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse & Burro Program, in 1997 conceded to Martha Mendoza of Associated Press that about 90% of the horses rounded up to that point had been sold to slaughter.
Congress responded by slashing funding for the Wild Horse & Burro Program. The pace of wild horse captures necessarily slowed, but reforms introduced to discourage “adoptions” of wild horses to be sold to slaughter meant that the numbers of horses held in Bureau of Land Management corrals rapidly increased.
Conrad Burns rider
A 2004 stealth rider to a U.S. Department of Interior appropriations bill, attached by former Montana U.S. Senator Conrad Burns, stipulated that “Any excess animal or the remains of an excess animal shall be sold, if the excess animal is more than 10 years of age, or the excess animal has been offered unsuccessfully for adoption at least three times…without limitation.”
The Burns amendment appeared to reopen high-volume commerce in wild horses for slaughter, but has been suspended since 2005 by language included in annual Interior appropriations bills.
This created a business opportunity for rancher and livestock hauler Tom Davis, of La Jara, Colorado.
Davis from 2008 to 2012 bought 1,794 wild horses from the Bureau of Land Management at $10 apiece.
“Davis typically bought horses by the truckload, paying $350 for a 35-horse haul,” summarized John Ingold of the Denver Post. “Because it was the BLM’s policy until 2012 to transport large sales of horses to the buyer, the BLM spent more than $140,000 delivering the horses to Davis,” who “told investigators he would resell the truckload of horses for $3,500 to $4,000” to buyers for slaughterhouses in Mexico.
Office of Inspector General
Eventually the Bureau of Land Management Office of Inspector General investigated.
“During our investigation,” the Office of Inspector General reported on October 23, 2015, “Davis admitted that most of the horses he purchased from BLM went to slaughter, but he denied that he transported the horses directly to slaughter. He explained that prior to purchasing horses from WH&B [the BLM Wild Horse & Burro program], he made arrangements with buyers—whose names he would not disclose—who transported the horses to Mexico. Davis said WH&B employees asked him several times if he was selling the horses to slaughter. He reassured WH&B that he was not selling them to slaughter and reported on his applications that the horses were going to good homes. Davis also admitted that he knew he was not supposed to sell the horses to anyone who would take them to a slaughterhouse.
“In addition,” the Office of Inspector General report continued, “we found that BLM implemented and followed policy that contradicted legislation, by not destroying horses to maintain an ecological balance, and the 2004 Burns Amendment, by placing limitations on horse sales…We referred this investigation to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado as well as the State of Colorado Conejos County District Attorney’s Office, which declined civil and criminal prosecution.
“Thousands of horses were shipped by Southwest Livestock Auction in Los Lunas [New Mexico] to slaughterhouses in Mexico,” elaborated Staci Matlock of the Santa Fe New Mexican. “Some of those horses might have been BLM wild horses sold [by] Tom Davis. Davis told investigators he was friends with a ‘kill buyer’ — Dennis V. Chavez, who has owned Southwest Livestock for 20 years,” Matlock recalled.
No brand inspection
“A New Mexico livestock brand inspector admitted to federal investigators that he did not visually inspect the brands on Southwest Livestock horses before they were shipped to Mexico, which might have revealed some were BLM mustangs marked with the agency’s freeze brand,” Matlock continued.
“Instead, the inspector relied on brand reports from Southwest Livestock,” the Office of Inspector General found.
Further, Matlock wrote, “A veterinarian certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who was responsible for issuing international health certificates for the horses before they were shipped to Mexico, told investigators that Southwest Livestock had filled out the documents. The veterinarian did not actually inspect the horses,” contrary to both state and federal law, “and did not know if any were BLM freeze-branded horses, according to the inspector general’s report.
Bunce said a USDA-certified veterinarian also is required to submit to the state copies of health certificates for all horses sold at the Southwest Livestock Auction.
Chavez, Matlock recalled, in 2013 “pleaded guilty to four of 12 misdemeanor charges brought against him by the Valencia County District Attorney’s Office as a result of a video showing what appeared to be some horses at his livestock facility dehydrated, emaciated and injured. In a plea deal, Chavez pleaded guilty to taking four horses without proper bills of sale, but avoided the more serious charges, such as cruelty to animals.”
Chavez had also been charged in 1991 with 16 misdemeanor counts of neglecting horses, but all but one count was dismissed. He was acquitted of the last count.
The wild horses allegedly relayed to slaughter in Mexico by Davis, if all transported in 2013, would have amounted to about 1.2% of the total of 144,656 U.S. horses slaughtered in Mexico and Canada.
Horses have not been slaughtered for human consumption in the U.S. since 2007, when Congress cut off funding for USDA inspection of horse slaughterhouses, and the U.S. Federal Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the slaughterhouses could not legally pay the USDA to continue to do the inspections.