Wild horse advocates joined Hollywood celebrities Tuesday in launching a campaign to protest a government proposal to kill thousands of wild horses rounded up off the range.
Calling for "suitable humane alternatives," actors Marty Kove, Alex Cord, Loretta Swit and others appeared at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Griffith Park to contest a new proposal by the U.S. Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management.
While there are an estimated 44,800 wild horses and burros on federal land in 10 western states, (including California, which has 2,100 wild horses and 1,000 burros), the controversy centers on so-called "excess animals" taken from areas that the BLM considers overgrazed or overpopulated.
These animals are kept in feedlots, pending purchase by private citizens under the bureau's Adopt A Horse program. Burros cost $75 and horses $125. While burros are easily placed, wild horses are more difficult to find homes for, and these excess animals cost taxpayers $9.3 million a year to feed and maintain, officials say.
According to BLM spokeswoman Barbara Maxfield in Washington, about 7,500 wild horses currently are in this category, a number that could increase to 10,000 or more once roundups resume in June.
Under the proposed policy change, the agency would destroy horses not placed in private care within 90 days after their availability to the public. This would reverse a five-year moratorium on destruction of excess animals.
"It's public awareness we need to protest the proposed killing," said Dianne Clapp, founder of the Wild Horse Sanctuary in Shingletown, Calif., the only facility of its kind in the country and one of more than a dozen groups joining in an animal rights coalition to start a telephone and letter-writing campaign against the BLM proposal.
At the Griffith Park gathering Tuesday, one of the formerly excess animals, a black mustang named Raven, owned by actor Dorian Harwood, ran around in a nearby ring.
According to Clapp, without government funding for more sanctuaries or an expanded BLM adoption campaign, the captured horses are "in effect, all under a death sentence."
The draft policy, which BLM officials say is open for public comment until May 22, will be finalized this summer. Euthanasia was added to other proposals that include BLM's existing Adopt-A-Horse program.
The number of excess horses has increased steadily since 1985, when the BLM rounded up 18,959 horses, but only half were adopted. Another 10,126 were taken off the land last year.
"We want an end to future roundups until all the horses are placed," Clapp said, "or returned to their rightful home on public land."
Officials at the BLM, which has the management authority for the horses under the law, say they must balance the competing needs of the horses, existing wildlife such as deer or caribou and domestic livestock for which ranchers have obtained grazing rights. Horse advocates claim that livestock are given preferential treatment and wild horses unfairly blamed for overgrazing.
According to the BLM, 4.1 million domestic livestock graze on federal land, compared to the 44,800 horses.
Since 1971, the BLM spokesmen say, of the more than 90,000 wild horses rounded up as excess, about 70,000 have been adopted and the remainder destroyed.