Conservationist, however, calls it 'the easy way out'
By Tony Davis
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 10.09.2009
A Tucson Democratic congressman who has led the fight to save wild horses had high praise this week for a new Obama administration plan to move thousands of the horses and burros to new preserves in the Midwest and East.
An official with the Arizona branch of a national conservation group, however, denounced the new program as unrealistic and "the easy way out."
On Wednesday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a plan to create seven new preserves — two federally owned and five privately owned — each to take about 3,600 horses and burros. It is a dramatic change from earlier Interior Department warnings that slaughtering some of the 69,000 wild horses and burros now under federal control might be necessary to combat rising costs of maintaining them.
Nearly 37,000 wild horses and burros roam in Nevada, California, Wyoming and other Western states. Arizona has only about 400 wild horses and 1,800 wild burros on Bureau of Land Management Land and another 200 to 400 on Forest Service land. Another 32,000 horses and burros are cared for in corrals and pastures in Kansas, Oklahoma and South Dakota.
U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Tucson praised the proposal, although it didn't go as far as the bill he has proposed that would free up 19 million acres across the West for horses to roam. That bill has passed the House and is pending in the Senate.
"It's a step forward in the right direction, even though it's not everything we want," said Natalia Luna Rose, Grijalva's press secretary. "The administration is listening. The congressman is happy to see this in motion."
But there's no way the feds can avoid having horses killed unless horse adoption rates increase tenfold, Larry Audsley countered, and they've been declining in recent years for what federal officials say are reasons linked to the bad economy.
"The plan they are coming up with is not sustainable," said Audsley, speaking for the Arizona Wildlife Federation. "They are taking the easy way out. They are seeking a political solution, not an environmentally sustainable solution."
But the current program is not sustainable for the animals, the environment or taxpayers, Salazar said.
The Bureau of Land Management's wild horse program cost about $50 million this year, and the cost is expected to grow to at least $85 million by 2012, officials said. The cost of buying land for the proposed preserves — at locations that have yet to be disclosed — is estimated at about $96 million
Salazar and the BLM have to do something, since a Senate committee was preparing to vote on Grijalva's bill, commonly known as the ROAM act, said Julianne French, a wild-horse advocate in Tucson. It's already passed the House.
"But I don't think the horses belong in sanctuaries," said French, a board member of the Cloud Foundation, a Colorado Springs organization dedicated to preserving wild horses and burros on public lands.
Ginger Kathrens of Colorado Springs, filmmaker and wild- horse advocate who has chronicled the lives of a wild-horse herd in Montana, said that blocking reproduction could alter the animals' behavior. "It takes the wild out of wild-horse herds," she said. "They're families in sophisticated societies. Creating gelding herds and preventing them from reproducing is managing them toward extinction."
But ranchers, who see wild horses as competing with cattle for grasses and water, welcomed the proposal. Jeff Eisenberg, executive director for the Public Lands Council, a group that works on public-lands issues for ranchers, said Salazar's proposal was a big step toward a solution. "Horses are important, but people and their livelihood and food production are important, too," Eisenberg said. "We're for balance."
Grijalva called Salazar's plan a significant improvement from those of previous Republican administrations, and said he looks forward to continuing to forge common ground among various advocates.
A Tucson environmentalist who comes down in the middle on this question is state Rep. Daniel Patterson, a Democrat who is also Southwest director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "There are big problems that wild horses and burros can do to native wildlife, but the big question is how do you deal with them? On one side some people say gun them down, others say do nothing. I believe they should be humanely managed."
The New York Times and the Associated Press contributed to this story. Contact reporter Tony Davis at 806-7746 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Tony Davis on Twitter at twitter.com/tonydavis987
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