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The silence of the horses

Friday, March 18, 2005
By RYAN McELVEEN / Cavalier Daily Science Columnist

Four months ago, the wild horses of the American West were doomed to a deadly fate from which it is unlikely that they will be rescued. In December 2004, Senator Conrad Burns (R-Montana) sneakily attached a rider to the 4,000-page Federal Consolidated Appropriations Bill, eviscerating years of federal protection for America's wild horses. Burns opened the backdoor for thousands of these horses to be sold for slaughter with the goal of freeing Western lands for uninhibited cattle grazing. An even greater cause for concern is that an appropriation bill could change, without debate and full public disclosure, the 33-year-old Wild Free-Roaming Horse & Burro Act of 1971 that had protected against such killings.

By 1971, the population of wild horses had been severely diminished as a result of encroachment by humans. Public outcry led the Senate and House to unanimously pass the act in 1971, signed by President Richard Nixon. Laws allowing motorized vehicles to be used to manage the herds and to create an inventory of and improve the rangelands followed in 1976 and 1978.

While it's likely that few University students even have heard of Burns' rider, the fact that more citizens have written to Congress about the wild horse issue than any other issue in America's history, excluding the Vietnam War, proves the widespread concerns of Americans. Luckily, in the democratic spirit of our country, on Jan. 15, U.S. Representatives Nick J. Rahall (D-West Virginia) and Ed Whitfield (D-Kentucky) introduced legislation (H.R. 297) that would restore the prohibition of the commercial sale and slaughter of wild free-roaming horses and burros, which are similar to donkeys.

If the legislation passes, the wild horses and burros cannot be sold for slaughter. Those animals that have unsuccessfully been offered adoption three times will still be granted protection under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. Moreover, criminal penalties will be re-established for using wild horses and burros for commercial purposes.

In Northern Virginia, my home, we have an "overpopulation" problem, as well. For the past two years, the deer population has multiplied and many of them have devoured my mother's crop of roses. But who can blame them? The massive overdevelopment of the region has forced them into suburbia where they subsist at least partly on residential gardens. Humans simply have given them nowhere to go. The deer face a fate similar to that of the horses --organized killings. In the case of the horses, their meat is shipped overseas to fill the stomachs of hungry French, Belgians and Japanese, who view horse as a delicacy.

In 10 Western states, six million cattle and sheep graze the land, but the Bureau of Land Management claims that designated Herd Management Areas can support only 37,000 wild horses according to www.msnbc.com. However, there is a solution to the expense of long-term holding of older wild horses that the government is avoiding. Horses that cannot be adopted should not be removed but rather taken to their home range. Injecting the mares with the long-term immunocontraceptive vaccine PZP will prevent further reproduction, and it will prevent the horses from suffering a painful death according to www.wildhorsesanctuary.org. This type of contraceptive has proven successful on 10 Herd Management Areas of Nevada. The horse population will be controlled, and it would not deplete water and food sources from the precious cattle population.

In the words of British playwright John Heywood, "While the grasse groweth the horse starveth." The grass is growing in the West, and Washington does not see any reason to give these national treasures access to the lands they've inhabited for the past 500 years. These wild horses have endured the test of time, and they remain an integral component of America's history. If H.R. 297 fails to win passage, these magnificent creatures will meet an utterly tragic end. Congress should recall the day three decades ago when it called the wild horses the "living symbols of the pioneer spirit of the West."

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