The rider probably spells doom for many of the 14,000 wild horses that languish in BLM facilities because they have not been adopted—and also endangers horses rounded up in the future. According to the new law, which took effect in January after Bush signed it in December, any horse that is older than 10 (not old for a horse) or has not been adopted after three tries through the poorly advertised adoption program can now be sold to the highest bidder. "Highest bidder" generally means middlemen who resell the horses to slaughterhouses. The demand for horse meat comes from Europe, Japan, and Mexico, and as fear of mad cow disease escalates everywhere, the appetite for it increases. This combination of increased roundups and sales to meat-packers will devastate the remaining herds.
A few legislators are fighting back. On Jan. 25, Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the House Resources Committee (which oversees wild horse policy on federal lands), introduced a piece of legislation along with Republican Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky to overturn the Burns rider. "Very few icons of the West remain," Rahall said, "and wild horses are certainly a symbol of the frontier era and our nation's spirit. To allow them to be slaughtered without exhausting all other options, such as adoption, is an affront to our history."
Even if the horses aren't immediately sold to slaughterhouses, they face another potentially disturbing fate. They may be bought by a prominent Montana rancher named Merle Edsall, who has planned for months to "repatriate" 10,000 wild horses to a "sanctuary" in Mexico. Edsall says he wants to build a wild horse tourist attraction, but once they move south of the border, it would be impossible to monitor what happens to them. Edsall may also have influenced the Burns rider. The language in the Burns rider was the exact same wording floated by Edsall at a meeting of the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board last February in Phoenix.
Many wild horse advocates are hoping that the Rahall/Whitfield legislation will win additional sponsors and will be enacted quickly in the current Congressional session. But public lands ranchers are a powerful interest group. If the Burns rider remains as law and is carried out, our cowboy President—recently characterized by Burns as "a man who earned his spurs"—may be remembered for eradicating the living symbol of the American West, the very horse he rode in on.