Wednesday, February 18, 2009

New law introduced to protect wild horses

Challis herd could see protection

Express Staff Writer

A herd of about 200 wild horses near Challis could be protected under a bill recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The proposed law, called "Restoring Our American Mustangs," would amend the landmark 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act to create sanctuaries for wild horse and burro populations on public lands and to prohibit the killing of healthy wild horses and burros.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and Raúl Grijalva, D-AZ, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

"It is unacceptable for wild horses to be slaughtered without any regard for the general health, well-being and conservation of these iconic animals that embody the spirit of our American West," Rahall stated in a press release. "Introduction of this legislation will ensure the continued presence of those wild horses that make their homes on public lands."

According to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, there are six herds of wild horses in Idaho, numbering about 700 total. The Challis herd numbers somewhere between 185 to 253 horses between gatherings and the Owyhee herd has about 200 head.

The proposed law was written as a result of news last summer that the BLM planned to slaughter as many as 30,000 otherwise healthy wild horses and burros that had been rounded up. Shortly after, the Government Accountability Office released the findings of an investigation that revealed a host of troubling problems plaguing the BLM's wild horse and burro program.

In a letter sent last week to a local resident, First Congressional District Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, said "the abundance of wild horses harms native habitat and reduces the amount of scarce grass otherwise available both to commercial livestock and wildlife." He said that for their own health, wild horse herds need to be managed by federal agencies tasked with rounding them up for adoption or for "disposal" if adoption isn't viable.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, was not available for comment by press time.

Elisa Kline, a Hailey-based photographer and proponent of Idaho's wild horse herds, said in an interview that the BLM should manage wild horses in a way that shares the public land with cattle, or designate real sanctuaries, not holding pens, so taxpayers could spend less on their food and housing.

"This legislation would protect the American wild horse and treat it as the sacred animal it is, the symbol of freedom in the American West," Kline said.

The Horse and Burro Act originally stated that wild horses are "an integral part of the natural system of the public lands," and that they should be protected from "capture, branding, harassment, or death." However, the law was amended in 2005 to allow the BLM to sell older and unadoptable animals at livestock auctions.

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