The Stealth Lobbying Cause You’ve Never Heard of: Wild Horses

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The blades spin dust and dirt all around the wild horses. Barely above their manes, the operators of the screaming helicopters are corralling the mustangs and burros into a pack and driving them toward holding pens, often miles and miles away. A few animals try to break from the pack, but most move like a school of fish, even those exhibiting obvious injuries and signs of exhaustion. Those who do make it to the metal caging are sometimes bloodied from crashing into each other or the man-made barriers.

And it’s all entirely sanctioned and funded by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, in an effort to move wild horses off public lands that, in some estimations, cannot sustain so many free-roaming animals.

The practice seems as brutal as it does bizarre. Despite the mythologies of the West, herd management is done more by aircraft than lasso these days. And it’s often handled by the same companies intent on making room for their own cattle to roam, a twisted insiders’ game that lets the giant mega-ranchers cash in not just on flying the helicopters that clear the area, but then again with pennies-on-the-dollar deals to allow private cattle and sheep to graze on public lands.

After being brutally rounded up, many of the wild horses, seen by many as a symbol of the West’s independent nature, are off-loaded to commercial pens. If they’re really lucky, they get adopted by a well-meaning and honest farmer who can qualify for subsidies and credits to help take care of these animals less as a charity case and more of a cause. If they’re super-unlucky, they find themselves at auction where dodgy traders can transport them across the border to Mexico or, to a much lesser degree, to Canada, where the processing of horsemeat for foodstuffs is legal.

“All you have to do is see one roundup and see one colt chased to the ground to realize this is an awful practice,” says Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat from Nevada, the state with the most wild horses and burros, most of them on the 86% of the state that is federal lands. “[The Bureau of Land Management] is supposed to humanely round up and care for wild horses and burros, but humanely to me is not running them down with helicopters.”

Titus, along with Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, are the lead sponsors of a short, four-page bill that would outlaw the use of helicopters and airplanes to herd wild horses and burros, as well as demand a study of alternative ways to round up the animals and control over-population, perhaps by fertility interventions. The measure has been introduced before and had zero luck; the ranchers gaining off the practice have deep political ties not just to Western politicians but also the rank-and-file bureaucrats at the Bureau of Land Management and its parent organization, the U.S. Department of Interior.

“The [Bureau of Land Management] is captured by the mentality of the cattlemen. They look at the horses as a pest and something to get rid of, and something that infringes on ranchers,” Titus says.

The Bureau of Land Management’s chief spokesman declined to respond with an on-the-record comment about the pending legislation. But defenders of the policy are not wrong when they note that horses can be damaging to the land and that an outside analysis from the the University of Wyoming says the use of helicopters is efficient and safe. At times, the helicopters can fall back as much as a half-mile if the horses and burros are moving in the right direction. And over-populating, now or in the future, can threaten an entire herd or species. Of the 155 million acres of public land set aside for animal use, wild horses are allocated 27 million acres, while cattle and sheep have control over the vast majority.

That doesn’t mean the practice of helo-policing mustangs, as they are also called, is any less shocking to see.

In a documentary about the process, filmmaker Ashely Avis chronicles the round-ups of these animals across several years. The footage from Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of The West is shocking and occasionally cruel.

“The biggest problem with the entire fight for wild horses is most people don't know,” Avis tells me at the U.S. Capitol on a recent evening after two days of meeting with lawmakers trying to push for support of the Titus-Fitzpatrick measure. “There's nothing humane about it. And so, and we've seen little foals run their hooves off in these stampedes, we've seen them get crushed.”

While Avis’ narration certainly ascribes dodgy motives to Interior bureaucrats, the press-management tactics reveal less than the conditions that deliver the mustangs to their staging and transport sites. The money behind it seems like a loop between bureaucrats, ranchers, and their helicopter pilots in a closed system that nefariously protects cattle and sheep at the expense of horses. Since 2006, the Bureau of Land Management has contracted more than $57 million in air-based round-ups. In fiscal year 2022 alone, that number approached $7 million.

Most lawmakers, frankly, aren’t terribly interested in prodding the ranchers, who are an incredibly sophisticated lobby with strong sympathy among voters. And the federal money involved in this practice amounts to a rounding error in a federal budget that topped $6 trillion in fiscal 2022. Who can be against ranchers? Well, they’re about to meet one surprisingly experienced advocate who, while still appreciating ranchers, has zero sympathy for their helo-herding.

“I want the horses to still be able to work their magic on future generations in terms of what they provide as reminders that we're not the only species worth protecting,” Diane Lane tells me in a quiet room in the Capitol. “With all of the controversy around what bipeds are doing, I'm happy to talk about the four-leggeds.” The Oscar-nominated actress had just spent the day traipsing across the Capitol complex meeting with lawmakers who, to a tee, all agreed to sign onto the measure after hearing her pitch.

“She's still batting a thousand. Every single one of them as of this morning signed on the bill,” Fitzpatrick said as he welcomed Lane for a reception after another long day of meetings.

The Capitol Building sees its fair share of Hollywood celebrities, many of whom crash the Hill to promote a pet cause before jetting back to movie sets. Lane is different. She quietly lobbied Congress for four years to ban the harvesting of shark fins for soup while the fish is still alive. She not only knows her way around the Capitol, she understands the slow grind of moving legislation and the pitfalls of throwing around huge entourages to summon attention. When she led a reception with Titus, Fitzpatrick, and Avis, she carried her own bag and briefing material and had just one adviser keeping her on schedule. (She didn’t need help staying on message. Once off-book, she knows her material.)

Here, it’s important to be realistic. This is an election year. Congress can barely keep the lights on as it lurches from one stopgap spending measure to another. Western lawmakers aren’t eager to pick fights with the powerful cattlemen in their state. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a former Democratic member of the House and a member of Biden’s administration, has been, frankly, less than sympathetic to the petition. And the Biden administration broadly hasn’t particularly been eager to seem like it’s cracking down on ranchers heading into a re-election bid where, especially in Nevada, Colorado, and Arizona, ranch hands vote and mustangs do not.

So, for the time being, the Bureau of Land Management will continue to engage in this practice that, from time to time, does draw a temporary order to hit pause, but never a permanent ban. Interior officials say they’re only doing their job to protect the land for future generations of the endangered mustangs. But folks like Titus and Fitzpatrick—with the wattage and resolve of Lane willing to engage any lawmaker any time on the issue—are going to keep fighting. It’s uphill, for sure, but certainly less steep than some of the ridges that the wild horses and burros climb to survive on whatever grows in those wild Western lands.

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