"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
--Charles Dickens, opening line of Tale of Two Cities
This article started out to be a simple story focusing on a complex subject: what's new with the US Government's Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse and Burro Program?
It's spring, after all, and news about wild horses tends to emerge as the grass turns green.
But this year, it's different. There's not one story to share, there are a dozen. Not one dozen, but two dozen. Not from the usual sources of government agencies and conservancy groups, but from universities, tourism offices and, yes, even an interior decorator who wanted to get in on the act. The politics cover the gamut from genetics to oil rights to birth control...and remember that we are talking about horses, not humans.
The Jurga Report shares this laundry list of the best of times and the worst of times for wild horses and ponies around the world.
Surely these are only some of the headlines; add your own updates in the comments section of this article. Whether you call them brumbies or mustangs or Dartmoors, their issues are similar. And whether you'd like to see them hauled to slaughter or capture them only with your camera lens, you must admit that these stories are intensifying each year.
A state government press release announced on Thursday that it planned to "cull" an area where 10,000 wild horses are said to be suffering in Northern Territory of Australia. They plan to shoot them from the air. Read more and see gruesome photos: Central Land Council press release.
At the same time, at the opposite end of the Australian continent, another wild horse cull is planned for the snowy Victorian Alps. Estimates that about 160 horses per year are being removed have been found insufficient; authorities suggest the removal needs to be as large as 2000 per year, although they don't recommend aerial shooting as is planned for the desert-dwelling horses of the Northern Territory. These horses live in a national park.
DATELINE: Wyoming, USA
The US Bureau of Land Management is planning a gather of wild horses in southern Wyoming's "Adobe Town & Salt Wells Creek" management zone. The agency has opened a 30-day period during which comments are being collected about any impact that this gather may have. According to the BLM's assessment, there may currently be as many as 500 excess horses in the zone. Consult the BLM's fact sheet for the rationale and estimated impacts of action (or no action) for this regional effort.
Nearly half of a remote tribe of ponies living in the dramatic Snowdonia range in Wales perished in a freakish blizzard in April. However, the survivors of what is known as the Carneddau ponies have something to celebrate; they have been genetically analyzed and found to be a distinct breed from the overall Welsh ponies found elsewhere in that British nation.
You can download the paper "Genetic diversity and phylogenetic analysis of native mountain ponies of Britain and Ireland reveals a novel rare population"; the research was part of the doctoral thesis of researcher Karen Winton at the Aberystwyth University in Wales.
DATELINE: Washington, D.C.
Wild horses have a new decision-maker. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell isn't jumping into the controversial subject quite yet; she told the Denver Post last week that she is expecting a major report on the wild horse situation on BLM-controlled land from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in early June.
Jewell did mention in the interview that roughly half the BLM's budget is going to the management of wild horses in western states. How did the BLM survive the recent sequestration austerity cuts on the federal level? Apparently the program was not devastated, although the Palamino Valley facility in Nevada now has reduced hours when it is open to the public, and the Mustang Heritage Foundation's Extreme Mustang Makeover projects for 2013 in Georgia and Oregon were cancelled, while the finals in New Jersey are expected to be unaffected by the cuts.
While Jewell waits for her report, the BLM is drawing the ire of wild horse advocates by suggesting that a solution to wild horse population growth would be a veterinary procedure called an "ovariectomy", somewhat similar to the spaying of a female dog. However, the BLM would do this to mares as a field procedure, not in a hospital. Spaying mares will also be covered in the NAS report, according to an article in the Denver Post.
DATELINE: Inner Mongolia
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In this video, the University of Queensland's Phoebe Manton reports on the devastating losses suffered by re-introduced herds of Przewalski's Horses in Mongolia's Gobi Desert. Many of these horses had been captive-bred in European zoos over the past 20 years, where they were kept in reserves that simulated wild conditions, and then trucked across Asia to be returned to their ancestral homes.
Mongolia may well be the horsiest place on the planet earth, but times are still tough for these tiny bands of distinctive wild horses.
The Conejos County Sheriff's Office announced that it was launching an investigation into BLM buyer/shipper Tom Davis, who admitted to buying hundreds of wild horses and shipping them without keeping records or following state laws regarding brand inspections on wild horses before transport.
Wild horses were in the news from one end of Canada to the other. In British Columbia, advocates feared that 14 wild horses culled off land there ended up in an Alberta slaughterhouse. Their alleged crime? Competing with moose for grazing. A tribal organization was paid $73,000 by the provincial government to improve moose habitats; they believe that horses and moose compete for the same grazing land. The horses were auctioned off and their fate is not known.
At the other end of Canada, there is good and bad news in the North Atlantic. Sable Island, home to some of the most remote wild horses in the world, has been slated since 2011 to become a protected national park. That's the good news; the bad news is that oil drilling there is a major risk, thanks to steps taken by Exxon Mobil under the national park provisions.
Basically, according to the Halifax Chronicle Herald, Exxon Mobil will simply drill sideways under the island if it can't drill from on top of it. Horizontal oil drilling is the concept at hand; they expect they could drill from approximate two kilometers away to access oil reserves sitting under the sandbar that is home to hundreds of wild horses.
DATELINE: North Dakota
The Nokota wild horses of North Dakota are in dire straits after a long, hard winter. They need donations, and they need them soon
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Is there a more iconic, free-roaming wild horse that those splashing, galloping white horses of the Camargue region in southern France? Trapped in a giant salt marsh that has been made a nature park, the wild horses are supposed to be left alone, but they are a photography safari's dream.
Kudos to our friends at Th??tre du Centaure for their stunning videos showing the highlights and the lowlights of being a marsh dweller. If you enjoyed the high-tide swim in the first video, consider what happens when the tide recedes:
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DATELINE: North Carolina, USA and Dartmoor, Great Britain
While ovariectomies may be the great hope for the BLM, other wild horse management authorities in the US Fish and Wildlife Service are turning to contraception as a way to control herd growth. North Carolina's Outer Banks Corolla herd is one example; the wild horses there are on USFWS land rather than BLM land, and thus subject to different management policies.
The BBC announced today that a similar plan is being followed for the Dartmoor ponies in Great Britain; initial results in that herd are considered a success.
DATELINE: Easter Island
The value of wild horses for tourism is becoming evident around the world. Whether they roam the island of Delft off the coast of Sri Lanka, the Camargue, Georgia's Cumberland Island, the desert of Namibia or--surprise!--amid the ancient statuary of Easter Island in the mid-Pacific, wild horses add up to tourism dollars.
Horse watching is following in the steps of wildlife safaris in Africa, or whale watches in coastal towns. Keep your distance, capture only photos, and remember the donation box when you get back to the base. People are willing to travel long distances and spend money to be among wild horses, yet how to manage them and who should be able to access them--and when--is still unclear in many herd areas.
Whether you agree with her or not, wild horse advocate Madeleine Pickens is the de facto spokesperson in favor of protecting wild horses. In this interview taped last week, she rolls the issues of horse slaughter and wild horse vulnerability into one big ball--and she may be right: a slippery slope from one issue to the other may develop if horse slaughterhouses open in the western United States.
If you think that wild horse politics don't affect you and your horse, or if you feel indifferent to the politics that determine their fate, you might want to think again, and keep your eye on the news. Near and far, wild horses are making news, for the best and worst of reasons. The horses need help, their managers need alternatives and the urgency of the situation is growing every day.
Squint a bit and you can read bits of the past, present and future of horses as we know them between the lines of these stories.