Does a booming horse population justify mass killing?

Back in March, following the United Kingdom's horse meat scandal, Bloomberg's Marc Champion argued that slaughtering horses in the US, instead of shipping them to slaughterhouses in Mexico, would reduce their suffering. I noted the moral dilemma with this " the horses will die either way, so we may as well do the killing" argument and wondered if there were alternatives to reduce suffering, without directly participating in the killing.

Now, a new paper in Science warns that the wild horse population is growing so fast that the government is struggling to control the herds, while management costs are skyrocketing and horses are suffering due to lack of water and forage.

Brad Plumer at Wonkblog summarizes the problem:

There are currently some 33,000 wild horses roaming freely on public lands in the western United States, descendants of horses brought by Spanish conquistadors. Under a 1971 law, the Bureau of Land Management is supposed to protect these horses and make sure their numbers don’t get out of hand — so that they’re not destroying the ecosystem or dying of starvation.

But that’s easier said than done, and BLM has long struggled to bring the horse population down to the mandated level of 23,622. There are, after all, only a few thousand people willing to adopt horses each year. And Congress has largely restricted the slaughter of healthy horses.

So, in recent years, BLM has been rounding up excess horses and shipping them off to long-term “retirement” facilities — mainly private ranches in Kansas and Oklahoma. The problem is that this is hugely expensive: There are now 45,000 horses in these facilities, and BLM’s horse budget has soared from $19.8 million in 2000 to $74.9 million in 2012.

Part of the population boom is due to a lack of apex predators species - such as cougars, wolves and grizzlies - helping to control the horse population by removing weak and sick animals from the herd. But a bigger problem is that the government is giving far too much preference to cattle ranchers over the interests of horses.

Why should the horse population be held to 23,622? There are, after all, some 5 million cattle that graze on public lands for free.

It's not hard to see which herds are causing more damage to the environment.

In an update to his post, Plumer notes this overlooked solution:

Using BLM figures, the [American Wild Horse Preservation Center] estimated that about 82.5 percent of the forage in wild horse herd management areas is actually reserved for livestock grazing, while just 17.5 percent of the forage is allocated to the horses themselves. So another possible option to alleviate overcrowding could be to scale back livestock grazing on public lands. That’s likely to be controversial among ranchers, but it’s worth noting.

Of course it is controversial among ranchers! We're letting them fatten their cows on public land.

I'm sympathetic to farmers and ranchers that have to deal with wild horses running through their private property and it is important to control certain animal populations to protect ecosystem balance, but it doesn't seem to make much sense to consider killing off thousands of wild horses just so there is more forage on public land for private ranchers' cattle.

What do you think? Would you rather see horses killed to prevent them from suffering from starvation? Or should we rethink our land use policies to allow more forage for horses and minimize the amount of land allocated to cattle grazing?

Tags: Agriculture | Animals | Animal Welfare

Best of TreeHugger