Bill would ban euthanization of wild horses


New legislation would prohibit euthanization of healthy wild horses and burros on federal lands.

WASHINGTON — Two U.S. Representatives introduced new legislation that would prohibit euthanization of healthy wild horses and burros on federal lands and make other sweeping changes to existing law on wild-horse management.

Called the ROAM (Restoring Our American Mustangs) Act, H.R. 1018 was introduced in February by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall (D-W.Va.) and Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.

Under a longstanding federal law, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees the nation's rangelands and the wild horses and burros on them, has the option of euthanization to help control herd populations, even though the BLM considers that the option of last resort.

The two lamakers say the ROAM Act would:

» Ban the killing of healthy wild horses and burros.

» Remove present limits on areas where horses can roam freely, allowing the BLM to find additional, suitable acreage

» Strengthen the BLM's wild horse and burro adoption program

» Require consistency and accuracy in the management of herds, allowing more public involvement in management decisions

» Facilitate the creation of sanctuaries for wild horse and burro populations on public lands

The bill would amend the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act (previously amended in 1976, 1978, 1996 and 2004), which originally set aside 53 million acres of public lands for the animals to roam freely. Since then, according to Rahall and Grijalva, the BLM has removed horses and burros from about 19 million of those acres and either adopted or placed in long-term holding some 200,000 horses.

"Since passage of the 1971 Act — the landmark legislation that first recognized the importance of wild horses and burros to our American culture, declaring that they embody the pioneer spirit of the West — the BLM, the agency charged with the stewardship of these iconic creatures, has struggled to uphold the vision of the 1971 act. Underfunding and charges of mismanagement have plagued the program and undermined the intent of the law," said Rahall at the first hearing on the ROAM bill, a March 3 subcomittee session.

"And, of critical concern, the BLM recently announced that due to a combination of a lack of funding, facilities and options, they may be required to kill as many as 30,000 healthy wild horses and burros," Rahall said. "Something obviously is broken here. ... The ROAM Act is intended to help the BLM do better."

Rahall then cited a 2008 Government Accountability Office report that he says identifies a number of deficiencies plaguing the BLM program, including a need for a more science-based system of counting wild horses and a need for expanding lands available for them. The GAO report says the BLM allows 160 million acres of public land for 570,000 head of cattle and sheep to graze, but confines the wild horses to 29 million acres.

The BLM, however, defends its method of estimating the number of free-roaming horses, and says there are no additional lands available for them.

Despite mounting costs of keeping some horses in short-term (ready for adoption) and long-term facilities, euthanizing horses is "a last resort," Henri Bisson, BLM deputy director of operations, told a meeting of the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board in Reno last fall.

At that meeting, the board passed 7-1 a proposal to euthanize some horses or sell some "without restriction," meaning they could go to slaughter facilities in Mexico or Canada. But the BLM has not acted on the recommendation.

The present advisory panel consists of nine members representing a variety of interests, including a veterinarian, Dr. Boyd Spratling, of Starr Valley, Nev.

The ROAM Act would establish in its place a 12-member board to advise the BLM on managing the horses, including three scientists with doctorate degrees who have expertise in wildlife management.

Among those testifying on behalf of the ROAM Act at the March hearing was Madeleine Pickens, wife of Texas oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens, and Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

Mrs. Pickens recently offered to work toward creating a million-acre sanctuary for wild horses but seeks a government stipend to help with their care. The BLM has not acted on her offer so far.

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