Could Ecotourism Help Solve the Wild Horse Problem?

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The Bureau of Land Management is in a pickle. And wild horse advocates are fuming. At issue is what the BLM considers unsustainably large herds of wild horses on 26 million acres of BLM land across 10 Western States. Each year, the BLM removes thousands of wild horses from its range lands and places them in medium or long term holding areas, run by contractors but paid for by the government. From there, some are adopted but most remain, to live out the rest of their not-so-wild days.

The BLM reckons that across the West, there are 38,500 wild horses and it says it will reduce that by about 12,000 in order to keep the herds robust and to prevent harm to their range lands. Wild horse advocates say the BLM number doesn't reflect reality, and that reducing the herds by 12,000 would actually make their numbers unsustainably low. And they claim that the means by which the BLM rounds up wild horses is inhumane and illegal. The real reason the government wants to reduce the wild herds, they say, is to accommodate the interests of livestock ranchers and energy companies that want access to the range.

All of this has makes the BLM wild horse program contentious, to say they least. But the agency is now considering a new management tool: “ecosanctuaries” for wild horses, which could generate eco-tourism around viewing wild horses in their (at least, close to) natural state. It's not a new idea — Madeleine Pickens has long wanted to start a large sanctuary called Mustang Monument where the public could come view wild horse herds from the BLM's “excess” stock. The agency said the economics of her plan weren't acceptable, but it is now on the cusp of permitting an ecosanctuary in Wyoming.

The agency opened a bidding process last year, asking for proposals from private parties with enough land to supply long-term pastures for large herds of wild horses. The conditions? The land owners would need to prove that they could humanely care for the animals and they must make the area accessible to the public, thereby opening up ecotourism opportunities. The sanctuary owners would be paid a rate comparable to what the BLM pays its existing network of private (but not publicly accessible) ranches, but these land owners would also be able to raise funds — through eco-tourism activities, for example — to defray the costs of operating the sanctuaries.

Late last week, the BLM announced that it had selected the first such proposal and will begin an environment assessment of a 4,000-acre ranch situated in Wyoming’s Centennial Valley. The land is owned by a family that currently operates a horse ranch on the property, with 15 horses.  “I look forward to the possibility of working with the BLM in caring for these icons of the American West,” the owner, Richard Wilson, told the BLM.

The agency said it expects to complete its review of the property and operations within six months. It is also considering establishing similar sanctuaries in areas with a mixture of private and BLM land. And it better, if it wants this solution to make a dent in the numbers. While the Wilson's ranch would only be given 250 horses, intially, there are 42,000 that the BLM has already rounded up. Add to this the 12,000 more it wants to take.

Although these ecosanctuaries could certainly drum up awareness of the wild horse debate, some wild horse advocates say they'll only further cloud the injustices that the BLM perpetuates against wild horses.

“Those ecotourists who come to view the 'wild horses' will be viewing horses who have been displaced from their legal herd areas. They will be viewing horses that have lost much of their natural freedom both as individuals and as a collective, evolving social group,” Craig Downer, an ecologist and author of “The Wild Horse Conspiracy,” told Environmental News Service.

The real solution, he says, would be to get the BLM out of the back pockets of cattle and sheep ranchers and allow more wild horses to remain, wild and free, on BLM land. He says the further reductions that BLM plans to make to the wild populations would put them at “cripplingly low, genetically non-viable levels.”

–Mary Catherine O'Connor

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