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America's Wild Horses Under Attack

The late British naturalist and conservationist Gerald Durrell used to talk about what he called the paper protection of animals. By that he meant governments made laws that on paper claimed an animal was protected but in reality the animal was still at high risk from humans. The greatest risk that Durrell saw was the fact that while there might be laws preventing them from being killed - there was no law preventing the land they lived on from being taken away.

The biggest threat to all wild life, whether it has roots, legs, fins, or crawls on its belly, is the steady encroachment of humanity into habitat. Humans and their farm animals do not mix with wild life under any circumstances. The least amount of contact will cause animals to change their habits. Look at the bears in parks like Yellowstone who beg for food, or ones near human habitation who have taken to foraging in dumps instead of hunting for food as they used to. Of course minimal contact isn't going to drive an animal to extinction, so government run parks or preserves that allow human visitors, if properly managed, are a lesser evil than the complete eradication of habitat.

In Canada a concentrated effort is being made both publicly and privately to preserve habitats where species or unique ecosystems are endangered. Once these areas are established they become off limits to any human intervention, whether habitation, exploitation of natural resources, or on occasion even human visitors. If an area is considered too sensitive to withstand even humans camping in tents, than they aren't allowed to enter the designated area.
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The necessity of programs like these was brought home to me again this weekend by the news that a herd of 150 American wild horses is under threat from a lumber company's plans for the Blackjack Mountain of Oklahoma. The herd was established around twenty-five years ago by Gilbert Jones and includes a couple of horses that are direct decedents of those who came to Oklahoma on the "Trail Of Tears" with Choctaws and Cherokees Indians during their forced removal from the Tennessee mountains.

In spite of the fact that American Wild Horses are considered a protected animal by the American government, The Oklahoma Land and Timber Company has been given permission to plant trees to harvest like a crop. In order to facilitate the growth of this "crop" they need to eliminate all ground cover and foliage that might compete with them. The company had signed a contract allowing for a two year period during which the herd could be relocated, but has since reneged and begun spraying the area with pesticides.

Bryant Rickman of the Medicine Springs Ranch, who manages the herd, has been given until February 29th to remove them from the area by the Lumber Company. Only thing is, where can you find room for 150 wild horses to run free anymore? You see the situation in Blackjack Mountain is a reflection of what faces the wild horse population across the United States as they are being squeezed off public land set aside for them by the very agency meant to be protecting them - the Bureau of Land Management.

In 1971, when Congress and Richard Nixon responded to public pressure and enacted the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was made responsible for the welfare of the remaining wild herds and ensuring that their population was maintained at the current level. At the time the BLM claimed there were only 17,000 animals living in the wild. What this claim was based on is unknown as they didn't conduct a census of the wild horse population for the first time until three years later. The results of that first head count showed them to be off target by more then 50% as the actual total was 42,000.

While on paper the law says that American Wild Horses are a protected species and public lands must be made available to them as sanctuaries for free range, less than half the actual population has been given that protection. In its wisdom, instead of amending the original 17,000 figure when they discovered how wrong it was, the BLM decided that the excess horses needed to be "removed" from public lands. The people who were responsible for preserving the horses have instead managed to reduce their population by around 50% since protection came into place.

The real problem is the fact that the BLM are also responsible for issuing grazing licences to cattle ranchers on the same public lands set aside for the horses. So for every horse the BLM can remove from public land, they can replace it with a fee paying cow. For every horse removed from public land agribusiness gets to graze a cow subsidized by the American government. According to two General Accounting Office reports the BLM was making removal decisions not on the actual numbers of horses that a range can support, but on the recommendations of advisor groups "largely composed of livestock permittees".
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So the guys who stand to make the most money from having wild horses removed from public land are the ones telling the BLM that horses are the primary cause of overgrazing and degradation of public lands. The truth is that because horses tend to roam and can find forage in areas where cattle and sheep can't, they cause far less harm to a habitat than any livestock.

When cattle graze they don't chew the grass they pull it from the ground; if the soil happens to be wet they will therefore rip it out by the roots. Horses on the other hand have front teeth allowing them to crop grass as they graze, meaning there is far less chance of them destroying the root system and allowing for new growth. A horse's digestive system is actually beneficial to a habitat, because they pass grass seed through their system and replant as they graze.

As to the BLM's claim that horses are degrading grazing lands; well horse aren't the critter that defecate in their own water supply, while cattle do. Horses aren't the animal that hangs out in one area of land until it's stripped clean of any and all forage necessitating human intervention to move them on to other pastures. Even without any of that information, the numbers don't lie; at current levels livestock out number wild horse by 200 to 1 on public lands. You tell me who is going to have the biggest impact on the environment; two hundred head of cattle standing in one place or one horse wandering around looking for food?

Yet somehow or other, in spite of all this information available to the government and Congress about BLM's record of mismanagement and its history of playing fast and loose with facts and information, their budget was increased by 50% in 2001 and then another third in 2005 to pay for an aggressive removal program of wild horses from public lands. So if the people charged with protecting the horse population in the wild are being funded by the government to remove the horses from the wild it really makes you question the validity of the law that supposedly guarantees their safety.

Back in Blackjack Mountain Oklahoma concerned people have come together to form the The Gilbert Jones Choctaw-Cherokee Conservancy and Historical Land Trust whose immediate goal is to raise $450,000 to purchase the first 524 of the needed 2,500 acres for the Trust to secure a permanent home for these last of a kind horses. The goal is to preserve the original tribal strains of Choctaw and Cherokee and America's Spanish Colonial Mustangs in viable and healthy wild herds for generations.

Return To Freedom, a 501c3 charitable organization has joined forces with script writer John Fusco (Hidalgo, Spirit, Stallion Of The Cimarron, and the upcoming Forbidden Kingdom) the Rickman Family, and others in forming the trust. You can find out more about their effort and what you can do to help by following the link above to the Return To Freedom web site.

In 1971, the single biggest letter campaign outside of protests against war, forced Congress and Richard Nixon to enact the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act to ensure the survival of America's wild horse population and preserve the strains that are unique to our continent. Thirty-six years of mis-management and conflict of interest has done nothing but reduce the population of horses in the wild by nearly 50%.That's not wildlife preservation in my book.

Unless otherwise stated, information in this article was provided by the The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign web site.

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