Wild horses, often considered elegant symbols of the American West, may be in danger with a new rule change by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management.
The change to the Obama-era rule removes restrictions on the horses' sale, according to activists, who fear the rule change will accelerate “mass round-ups” of wild horses, pave a path towards authorizing their euthanasia, and ultimately lead to their extinction.
The new rule, first released in late May, allows for the sale of up to 25 wild horses, which are federally protected, to one buyer within a six-month period without written approval from the agency’s assistant director – which activists say is a sharp increase from the 2013 rule’s maximum of four horses per buyer.
The American Wild Horse Campaign, an advocacy group, says the new rule means the agency “no longer has a requirement to describe the conditions in which the horses will be held.”
“Since riding a horse to his first day of work, Interior Secretary [Ryan] Zinke has galloped down a deadly path for America’s wild horse and burro herds – from asking Congress for permission to slaughter tens of thousands of these cherished animals to promoting the mass surgical sterilization of mustangs and burros on the range," Suzanne Roy, the American Wild Horse Campaign’s executive director, said in a statement. "Zinke is pushing the livestock industry agenda to rid our public lands of wild horses and trampling on the wishes of American citizens in the process.”
"The May 24, 2018 Instruction Memorandum that was released provides internal guidance for what is considered a sale eligible animal. It in no way changes the obligations and authorities given by Congress prohibiting the sale for slaughter or euthanasia of healthy animals. Secretary Zinke has made abundantly clear that he does not support slaughter or euthanasia of healthy horses and burros," the Bureau of Land Management told ABC News in a statement.
While wild horses have freely roamed the nation’s public lands for centuries, the Bureau of Land Management is concerned they’ll eventually overpopulate the land and become diseased.
Meanwhile, ranchers, who lease over 60 percent of Bureau of Land Management-owned public lands, have been pushing the agency to round up these untamed horses, claiming they compete with the ranchers’ livestock for grazing resources.
“Population control must be implemented to protect scarce and fragile resources in the arid West and ensure healthy animals. To carry out this mission, the BLM controls herd growth...through the periodic removals of excess animals and the placement of those animals into private care,” the agency’s Wild Horse and Burro Program webpage reads.
In January, the Bureau of Land Management considered allowing the euthanasia of wild horses for the first time in nearly 50 years. In late April, the agency submitted a report to Congress recommending euthanasia as an option for population control.
Currently, the ban on selling wild horses for the purpose of euthanasia is still in place.