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My view: Holistic approach to wild horses needed for survival

By Renae Cowley

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 20 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, Aug. 19 2014 6:47 p.m. MDT

As a horse owner and enthusiast, I am troubled by the mismanagement of Utah’s wild horses. When they learn the facts of this dire situation, most Utahns share my concern.

Ann Heisenfelt, File, Associated Press

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As a horse owner and enthusiast, I am troubled by the mismanagement of Utah’s wild horses. When they learn the facts of this dire situation, most Utahns share my concern.

I have owned horses most of my life and possess a deep respect and reverence toward them. In 2008, I was honored to be crowned Miss Rodeo Utah. In this position, I spent a year traveling the country promoting the sport of rodeo, the State of Utah and animal welfare.

Maintaining a healthy and thriving population of wild horses is important to our state. Good management of these horses protects our agricultural and livestock industries. A lack of forage means ranchers are unable to utilize shared rangelands for their cattle as they have done for generations. Currently, some ranchers are under threat to lose their family’s livelihoods and legacies because mustangs are overgrazing. Overpopulation of feral horses is also crowding out other indigenous species such as deer and elk, sending rifts through this delicate ecosystem. All Utahns have a fundamental 21st-century interest in a heritage that dates back hundreds of years.

There is no disagreement amongst vested parties that the current practices of mustang management are not working. The Laissez-faire approach (a result of budget restrictions) is causing overpopulation and overgrazing, and in a drought year such as this many die of starvation or dehydration. Rounding up and warehousing thousands of wild horses in holding pens indefinitely falls short of anyone’s standard of care.

The recent removal of 143 horses from Beaver County is ultimately ineffective. Due to the herd’s 15 to 20 percent growth rate annually, these horses are replenishing faster than the federal government is paring them down.

Wild horses historically were very desirable creatures known for their ruggedness, stamina and beauty. They were regarded as an embodiment of the western frontier – a true living monument. This once magnificent species has been reduced to scroungy alley cats. Sporadic and indiscriminate roundups have resulted in mustangs suffering from severe conformation flaws. If mustangs are resurrected to their previous glory and structural superiority, they become more desirable for adoptions, reducing the number of horses locked up in pens.

The systemic breakdown in the management of these herds is a result of easily preventable failures, especially the lack of quantifiable or realistic long term goals. To prevent further harm, government authorities, ranchers, environmentalists and wild horse advocates must collaborate on a multipronged approach. For example:

(1) The herds must be thinned of the most undesirable horses and prescribed population limits should be strictly adhered to.

(2) Strategic fertility treatments in accordance with a comprehensive breeding program should be utilized. This will limit the need for costly and dangerous roundups and build a herd with the best genetics.

This type of herd husbandry is best performed by those closest to the problem. If stakeholders have a problem with how the herds are being managed, we should do more than stand on the sidelines criticizing the federal government. With budget constraints and bureaucratic nightmares, the federal government should relinquish some of its authority to local and state governments, giving them the authority to step up and supply the resources and know-how to fix it.

Nobody is advocating for eradication of awe-inspiring wild horses, but a holistic approach to herd and environmental management is needed. The majesty of mustangs is fading into history and it is up to all stakeholders from ranchers to wild horse advocates, local and federal, to ensure these herds not only survive but thrive.

Renae Cowley hails from West Point and is a graduate of Utah State University. She is a part of a Utah lobbying firm, Foxley & Pignanelli.

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