The rumblings of Internet rumormongers notwithstanding, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management isn't gearing up to euthanize 44,000 wild horses and 1,000 burros.
But just to make sure, several dozen horse lovers mobbed the agency's downtown Phoenix office Thursday, trotting a fuzzy stuffed horse up and down Washington Avenue and shaking signs inscribed with slogans such as "BLM don't murder!"
"Save the horses!" they yelled, pumping their fists at passing pedestrians. "Save the horses!"
The scare kicked up last week after a BLM advisory board, made up of community stakeholders, recommended that the agency kill or sell to slaughter some of the wild horses and burros it has rounded up from public lands.
The animal-rights community mobilized, circulating dozens of petitions and inundating the agency with phone calls, prompting BLM spokesman Tom Gorey to step out Wednesday to assure everyone that the advisory board's proposal was just that: a proposal. The BLM will "continue its current policy of caring for unadopted or unsold wild horses and burros," he announced, and will "not sell or send any animals to slaughter."
Simone Netherlands, president of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, a feisty grassroots organization that recently wrangled the U.S. Forest Service into abandoning a plan to auction off a herd of horses that roams freely through the Tonto National Forest, rallied the group.
"These lands, are they called lands for profit?" she called.
"No!" they answered.
"What are they called?"
"That's right!" Netherlands said. "And the public demands the humane and responsible treatment of our wild horses and burros!"
Under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, it is illegal to capture, brand, harass, or kill a wild horse or burro. The land they roam, which amounts to approximately 26 million acres, is congressionally protected.
But because horses and burros have no natural predators in North America, the population is growing by 15 to 20 percent each year — too fast, according to a recent analysis by the National Academy of Sciences, to sustain a healthy horse population or a healthy ecosystem.
The BLM has responded by herding some 50,000 wild horses into corrals. Some of the horses are trained and adopted out, but most remain in long-term care facilities. (About 70,000 wild horses still roam free.) The agency has also begun experimenting with a birth-control vaccine called porcine zona pellucida, or PZP, that can be administered with a dart gun.
"There are a lot of things we could do to address this problem if we had unlimited bodies and funding, but that's not the reality," said Adam Eggers, a public-affairs specialist with the BLM of Arizona. "It costs taxpayers millions annually to care for these horses, and quite frankly, we don't have the budget. We have to find some sort of balance."
After singing a few rounds of "This Land is Your Land" while waving flags featuring a pawing stallion, the protesters marched inside the BLM offices to share their thoughts during a regional board meeting.
"Stop the roundups now! Stop the roundups now! Stop the roundups now!" they chanted.
Representatives from several different advocacy groups used the opportunity to condemn the BLM's overall management of the nation's wild horses and burros.
Robin Crawford, speaking for the Heber Wild Horses Freedom Preservation Alliance, challenged the BLM's overpopulation assessment, ticking off a list of what she called "biologically impossible" annual growth rates.
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"You have never been able to scientifically prove that there is an excess of wild horse and burros," she said. "You have failed to make the case for their removal, much less to justify killing off 44,000."
Regina Whitman, director of the Queen Creek-based nonprofit Desert Cry Wildlife, called the BLM's roundups, typically conducted using helicopters to herd horses into corrals, "inhumane" and compared its holding facilities to "concentration camps" where animals "languish for years" with insufficient food, medical care, and shelter from the elements.
It all boils down to fairness, Netherlands contended.
"You will never hear the BLM complain about the 8 million cattle that are also on our public lands," she said. "The fact of the matter is, wild horses and burros have been discriminated against for many, many years.