Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Horses vs. Helicopters: Roundup in the US West

In ten of the fifty United States there is a showdown going on.  It's between some 40,000 wild horses and the cowboys who are trying to round them up.  But this isn't the kind of showdown we've all read about or seen in movies depicting the Old West.  The cowboys aren't riding horses wrangling the animals to where they want them to go.  The cowboys doing this roundup are swooping down on the horses in helicopters in this high-tech showdown.  For the past month, the cowboys have been working in the states of California and Nevada and have caught over 1,200 wild horses. 

Just how do the roundups work?  Horses are spotted from helicopters then driven toward the trap site through a funnel shaped opening into a temporary corral.  Once in there, a "judas horse" is released to lead the wild horses into the trap where they must become accustomed to their new lives.  ("Judas horses" are animals specially trained to lead other horses into these traps.)  Sometimes the horses manage to outsmart the helicopters and can escape.  Most of the time, however, they do not.

According to animal rights activists, the roundups are cruel, expensive and unnecessary.  Activists cite the hard running the horses do and the distance they travel as being unnecessarily stressful on the animals, particularly the young horses. 

The government disagrees, however.  On Tuesday, August 10, 2010, lawyers for the Obama administration argued that leaving the herds of wild horses on public range land would do the animals more harm than good.  Administration lawyers filed papers in court stating the population of horses "will have devastating impacts on the other resources in the area and on the wild horses themselves".  A roundup organized by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) began the following day, August 11, 2010.

The current roundup hasn't been without tragedy.  Seven horses have died in this roundup alone.  Last winter, a roundup in Nevada caused more than 100 horse deaths.

According to the government, horses that are captured are offered for adoption.  If they aren't adopted, they are housed on large private ranches, most often in Kansas and Oklahoma.  The cost of holding 34,500 captured horses and burros in 2009 alone was a full 70% of the programs $40.6 million budget.

About the only thing both sides of this issue can agree on is that the population of wild horses and burros is great.  Once that agreement is out of the way, the disagreements start.  Critics of the program say the government is catering to the livestock ranchers over the animals who inhabit the land naturally.  The livestock ranchers pay the government to graze their cattle on public land while the government receives no money for the wild horses that live there. 

In 1971, the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act was passed into federal law protecting the dwindling population of wild horses and made it against the law for anyone to round up horses for sport or profit. 

I can't help but think that if a private individual was the one doing the helicopter roundups and running these horses to gather them for themselves (regardless of what they did with them) the administration would have them in court faster than you could say "giddyup".  I guess it's okay, though, for the government themselves to do it.  That's different.

(I've included both the original NYT article and the MSNBC.com reprint because I find the reader comments included in the MSNBC article not only add to the discussion but are a very interesting gauge of public opinion on this issue.)
Horse Advocates Pull for Underdog in Roundups (New York Times Original Article)
Helicopters vs. Mustangs: Cruel, expensive and unnecessary, animal activists say (MSNBC)
Feds: Postponing CA-NV roundup will harm mustangs
Judge allows wild horse roundup in Nevada


  1. First it's the wolves, now it's the horses. How about we leave the animals alone for a few minutes and let them work out their issues naturally without humans making a mess of everything.

  2. I agree completely. Let them keep going and eventually we won't have any animals left.

  3. Not tryin' to be picky, but there hasn't been 40,000 Wild Horses and Burros on the ranges since year 2000. Finding out 'exactly' how many there are is a mystery known only to the Bureau of Land Management; in 2005 & 2007, after roundups, there were less than 21,000. But the Bureau assures us they calculate the Population Increases on a 20% per annum basis, but which, according to the 'mystery formula' has been estimated as high as 60%.
    Horses take 11 months to carry a foal to term. The foal will not be capable of breeding for at least 18 months, maybe more, so it's not likely for 20,000 Wild Equines to become 38,000 Equines in a year's time.
    The Bureau's declarations on Wild Equines are less than accurate or scientific. But Roundups are a very important tool when accuracy and science are too time consuming. Roundups have become the rule rather than the exception.