Richard Nixon’s Burros
Forty years ago yesterday, Richard Milhous Nixon resigned from the presidency of the United States of America.
Whatever you might think of Nixon’s presidency, his politics or his party the fact remains that Nixon displayed the best of intentions toward our wild free-roaming burros…and horses.
On December 15, 1971, Nixon signed The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 (the Act). In a feat that would be impossible in today’s polarized political climate, Congress had passed the Act unanimously.
Section 1331 of the Act lays out Congress’ findings and declarations of policy regarding wild horses and burros as follows:
"Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands."
The wild horses and burros that roam our public lands have ignited passions on both sides of the fence. On the one hand, some wild horse advocates believe that wild horses and burros should be declared endangered because of ineffective implementation of the Act. On the other hand, some believe that wild horses and burros destroy land and resources required by grazing cattle and bighorn sheep. The horse/burro/cattle controversy has even been aired in the context of the Cliven Bundy standoff.
Unfortunately, Nixon’s well-intentioned act has led to the sequestration of tens of thousands of “excess” horses and burros in holding facilities across the country, all at great expense.
Good Horse Sense or Absence of Science?
Free-roaming horses and burros were defined in section 1332 of the Act as “all unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros on public lands of the United States,” including lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service.
In essence the Act provided that wild free-roaming horses and burros roaming federal lands at the time the law was passed would be protected on those lands.
These animals were to be managed by the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture (the Secretaries) depending on whether the horses and burros roamed BLM or Forest Service lands. Management included keeping an inventory of the numbers of these animals on public lands, determining whether these lands were overpopulated with wild horses and burros and taking action to remove excess animals.
As amended in 1978, the Act defined “excess animals” as wild free-roaming horses or burros that had been removed or must be removed from a protected area in order to preserve ecological balance and prevent interference with conflicting uses of the land. These animals could be adopted or, if unadoptable, destroyed in a “humane” and “cost-efficient” manner.
The Secretaries were tasked with managing wild free-roaming horses and burros “in a manner that is designed to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands.” [Section 1333 (a)]
In determining whether animals should be removed from public lands or destroyed, the Act required the Secretaries to consult with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, wildlife agencies of the State or States where wild free-roaming horses and burros are located” and “such individuals independent of Federal and State government as have been recommended by the National Academy of Science….”
Last year, an independent committee established by the NAC to review the oversight of wild free-roaming horses and burros released a report on the BLM’s management of these animals. The report, “Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward (2013)” found as follows: “The Wild Horse and Burro Program has not used scientifically rigorous methods to estimate the population sizes of horses and burros, to model the effects of management actions on the animals, or to assess the availability and use of forage on rangelands.”
In other words, the report alleged that protected animals were being removed and, in some cases, destroyed based upon bad science.
Since the NAC’s report, a survey of a wild horse and burro Herd Management Area found that the 2010 removal of 1581 wild horses and 159 wild burros from the Twin Peaks Herd Management Area (789,852 acres of primarily public land) was not warranted.
The survey suggested that too little forage (18 percent) had been allocated to the horses and burros compared to the 82 percent allocated to grazing livestock. In addition, the survey said that horses and burros were natural restorers of burned-over areas in the herd management area and that the previous removals had reduced the genetic diversity in the remaining populations of wild horses and burros.
Managing our wild free-roaming horses and burros is a complex issue, especially as the majority of the budget for maintaining them (64 percent in 2013) is spent on caring for removed horses and burros living in private holding facilities. The cost of the Watergate Scandal has been estimated at over 166 million dollars. According to at least one authority, the management of our wild horses and burros may very well cost us 300 million by the middle of 2020.
Perhaps with the application of rigorous science and some good old horse sense, we can begin to manage our wild horses and burros in a more balanced, ecological and sustainable manner.
Note by the author: This is a complex issue that cannot be covered adequately in a single blog post. The story of wild free-roaming horses and burros will be revisited in subsequent posts.