Debate Grows Over Roundup of Wild Horses in Nevada
With helicopters swooping low and slow, wranglers this week began rounding up and corralling wild horses on a vast Nevada range, feeding an intense debate over whether removing the animals helps or hurts the preservation of an enduring symbol of the West.
In one of the largest such roundups conducted in Nevada, federal officials said they were planning to remove about 2,500 mustangs from an area nearly three times the size of New York City, in the Calico Mountains 100 miles north of Reno.
There are too many of the animals in that area, upsetting the balance of natural resources for flora and fauna, including grazing land for cattle, federal officials said. About 140 horses had been removed as of Thursday. After two months of rounding them up and eventually trucking most to pastures in the Midwest, government officials expect 600 to 800 horses will remain.
“The fact is right now we have three to five times the population of wild horses that the range can sustain,” said Bob Abbey, director of the federal Bureau of Land Management, which is overseeing the roundup.
The roundup of wild horses, and burros as well, has been one of the most contentious issues in the West, where growth, farming, recreation and preservation do not always mesh.
Horse advocates unsuccessfully sued to block this roundup and celebrities like the singer Sheryl Crow and the actor Viggo Mortensen sent a letter to President Obama last week imploring him to halt it, to no avail.
On Wednesday, protesters gathered outside the San Francisco offices of Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who has been sympathetic to the cause in the past but, through a spokesman, would not comment on the roundup.
Suzanne Roy, a spokeswoman for In Defense of Animals, which has fought to keep the wild horses on the ranges, said federal officials had tried to cloak the roundup in secrecy by beginning it on inaccessible private land and conducting it during the lull between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
The group also says the helicopters, which federal officials call the most efficient means to guide the herds to the corrals, traumatize the animals. But more than anything, Ms. Roy said, the horses should be allowed to stay put.
“Wild horses have tightly knit bands,” Ms. Roy said. “This shatters the social structure; foals are separated from their mothers; the horses are put in a very unnatural situation. The whole thing is just a major trauma and terror for these really beautiful horses that have lived peacefully on these lands for hundreds of years.”
But the land management bureau said the “gather,” as it calls it, would ultimately save the lives of horses.
Unlike other animals, wild horses cannot legally be hunted or slaughtered, and they have no natural predator. When the area gets overpopulated, food becomes scarce and the horses suffer, said Mr. Abbey, the agency director, who expressed exasperation with some animal rights advocates.
“If it were up to them, we would be allowing wild horses to starve to death, which is no way to honor an American icon,” he said in a telephone interview.
Most of the older animals are moved to distant pastures that provide lots of room and abundant food. The younger horses are put up for adoption, though the government has struggled to find qualified people who want to adopt, particularly in the recession.
A goal of the roundup, acknowledged Heather Emmons, a spokeswoman for the agency, was providing access to grazing land for cattle. Some ranchers have pulled cattle from pockets of the range because there has not been enough vegetation, partly because of the overpopulation of horses but also because of a lingering drought.
Bureau officials said the roundups include safeguards, like a check of the horses by veterinarians. Since Monday, one horse caught in the roundup had to be euthanized because, Mr. Abbey said, it would not have survived the winter because of its advanced age.
The roundup will give wranglers ample time to corral the large numbers and provide the best access to the horses, before they migrate to more treacherous terrain in the warmer months, Mr. Abbey said.
The government already keeps 34,000 wild horses and burros captive, mainly in Oklahoma and Kansas. Another 37,000, half in Nevada, roam on bureau territory in 10 states.