Facing National Scrutiny, BLM Struggles to Explain Wild Horse Program

Horse manes flowing in the wind
Horse manes flowing in the wind

"Wild horses are not receiving a fair shake." Those are the words of a thirty-year Bureau of Land Management (BLM) veteran to NBC News' senior investigative correspondent, Lisa Myers, as part of her groundbreaking report, "Horses are wild -- but not free."

The segment is must-see TV. It not only reveals the inside experience of a former BLM official who worked on the program, but it also marks a defining moment in the fight to secure fairer treatment of America's mustangs by the federal government.

Until recently, the BLM's wild horse program has operated without accountability, due to a lack of public awareness and political pressure. But over the last four years, the program has slowly started to take on water: the $80 million annual price tag, the fact that three out of five wild horses have been captured and now live in government warehousing, and the sale of 1,700 wild horses to a known kill buyer.

The NBC News report leveraged all of this and more to put the program's supporters on the defensive. When Myers challenged the head of the program, Joan Guilfoyle, over the justification for the program, Guilfoyle responded that the BLM was trying to maintain a "balanced approach" to public land use.

The former BLM official quickly dismissed this by pointing out, "what really needs to be done is reduce the livestock numbers." Cattle, after all, outnumber wild horses by 50 to 1 on public lands. As further evidence, NBC pointed to research by our campaign, the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign (AWHPC), that shows the BLM is allocating more than 80 percent of forage in wild horse habitat areas to privately-owned livestock instead of to federally-protected mustangs.

Myers went on to press the program's supporters on what they want to do with the nearly 50,000 wild horses in government warehousing. While Guilfoyle claimed that the BLM would not consider slaughter, a rancher interviewed by Myers said flatly, "let them go to [the] slaughter house. What value are they now?"

This view is embraced by many of the program's supporters -- including people who sit on its advisory board -- despite opposition from 80 percent of Americans who oppose the slaughter of U.S. horses for human consumption.

The most damning part of the report came when Myers played footage of wild horses being tortured, injured and killed during helicopter roundups, forcing Guilfoyle to concede, "the incidents we see there are not the way we want animals to be handled."

This is the kind of journalism that serves the public well, and Myers and her producer, Michael Austin, are to be commended for spending the months of hard work necessary to understand this issue and properly convey it to NBC viewers.

Music legend and environmentalist Carole King, who graciously agreed to be interviewed by NBC at our request, described the BLM's wild horse roundups as "so offensive because they are so inhumane, so unnecessary and so cruel."

After watching this story, many citizens agreed. They took to AWHPC's Facebook page to describe the anguish they felt while watching the NBC story. "It brought tears to my eyes," wrote one. "I am just heartbroken and outraged," wrote another.

I add these anecdotes because they illustrate what motivates me and other advocates to wake up every day and fight for our wild horses and burros. We are making real progress, but we are not finished yet. Not by a long shot.

Right now AWHPC is circulating an open letter to Sally Jewell, the new Secretary of the Department of the Interior, which oversees the BLM and its wild horse program. The letter calls on Secretary Jewell to act to reform the BLM's program to make it more humane, cost effective and sustainable. We've already collected over 15,000 signatures and got a big boost last week when Congressman Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) signed on and asked his colleagues on Capitol Hill to join him as well.

What's needed now is your involvement. As the NBC story points out, even though wild horses are protected by an act of Congress, they have powerful enemies. The power of the people is what's needed now to overcome the special interests allied against America's mustangs. Please help us keep the momentum going by adding your name to the letter. Let's keep building the ranks of people who think the BLM's way of doing things has got to change. Let's protect this unique American legacy for generations to come.