Willie Nelson wants to know: “Why are there more horses asses than there are horses?”
The country legend’s gripe comes from his concern for the American West’s wild horses and burros, which are being rounded up by the thousands and placed into holding corrals by the federal government’s Bureau of Land Management. The capture of 2,500 horses started in the Calico Mountains of Nevada last month, but the agency expects to round up a total of 12,000 of the estimated 37,000 horses on BLM land by the end of this year.
Nelson, who himself owns 68 horses (30 of which were rescued and prevented from slaughter) isn’t the only celebrity speaking in defense of the animals. Nelson’s daughter Amy, singer Sheryl Crow, actors Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris, as well as former Playboy models Shane and Sia Barbi, have all signed letters to Congress and the President pleading for the horses’ cause.
Amy Nelson, who grew up with horses, finds last month’s Calico Mountain roundup especially cruel. “The fact that they’re rounding them up in the dead of winter, it’s really the worst time —not that there’s ever a good time,” Nelson tells PEOPLEPets.com. “The horses are in captivity, and they’re freezing out there. They need to run around in order to stay warm — it just doesn’t make any sense.”
BLM spokesman Tom Gorey says the roundups are needed because the horses, which roam across BLM land in Nevada, Utah and Colorado, have essentially become overpopulated, and that larger numbers will be detrimental to the land and its resources.
“The land is shared by wildlife, and we’re trying to get the number of wild horses and burros down to an appropriate management level,” Gorey tells PEOPLEPets.com. “Our overall objective is to ensure that there’s healthy range lands for multiple uses, including oil and gas development, and outdoor recreation.”
Gorey says the agency and its director, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, are hoping to get to a place where the horses will eventually be adopted out. The costs of keeping the animals in corrals, which are near capacity, keep mounting; 70 percent of the agency’s $40.6 million budget goes toward holding costs. But the market for adopting wild horses is declining.
“Adopting a wild horse — you can’t even get them in the trailer,” Nelson says. “People would be adopting a highly traumatized animal that’s huge. There’s no market for people to adopt them unless they’re a really kind millionaire, but there’s not a lot of those anymore, either.”
Critics suggest that the idea of multiple-use land is what’s driving the BLM roundup — in other words, larger interests are at stake. Ginger Kathrens of The Cloud Foundation, which works to prevent the extinction of wild horse herds, believes that the BLM is clearing horses off public land to make way for the Ruby Pipeline, a natural gas project that will operate through the Rocky Mountains.
Chris Heyde of the Animal Welfare Institute, which lobbies against animal cruelty, points to large livestock grazing operations and cattle ranchers that have sway with the government. Though he is on the front lines of lobbying and activism himself, Heyde feels that he might be fighting a losing battle.
Kathrens disagrees. The Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, whose documentary about a mustang named Cloud drew attention to the horses, and who first brought friend Sheryl Crow’s attention to the issue, says there’s still time to save many of the remaining horses, as long as there’s enough public outcry.
“The bottom line is that this agency has got to come clean,” Kathrens says. “They have to be made accountable at Congressional hearings. I think we’re just being hoodwinked and losing something so precious and spectacular.”
Helin Jung, email@example.com