John Ruhs, the Bureau of Land Management’s director in Nevada, helps oversee 37,700 wild horses and burros roaming federal lands in the state, more than three times the number the agency has determined the ranges there can sustain.
Nevada bears the worst of a problem trampling the West, with more than 72,000 horses occupying BLM-managed lands as of March, almost 300 percent more than the 26,715 the agency says it can control in an environmentally sustainable manner.
The crush of horses, Ruhs says, has dwindled the stock of essential plants and has damaged streams and banks, harming the food and water sources for horses and other animals that share the land.
To manage the overpopulation, Ruhs wants Congress to lift restrictions on his agency to give it more flexibility to euthanize horses — not just when they’re old and sick — and sell more of them for private use, without dictating what the buyer can or cannot do with the animals.
Ruhs says he would not take the responsibility lightly.
He is an avid horseback rider and horse owner, and a few years ago, he had to face the choice of euthanizing one of the horses he rode hardest, an animal he cared for over 25 years that had lost all its teeth.
“I care about this animal,” Ruhs told the Washington Examiner. “It’s a difficult choice, but that's what you do when you are responsible for the animals in your care. It doesn't matter what kind of horse it is. I am very passionate about my horses. I care about them and I hate to take a drastic action. But you have to at times.
“What’s happened over time is our tool box has shrunk, our ability to manage the wild horse population the way the law intended is hindered by Congress, and what we end up with is a population that every four years doubles in size,” said Ruhs, who in March became BLM’s acting deputy director of operations, the top civilian position at the agency. “We’ve created an environment where one living entity there [on public lands], the population of horses, continues to increase. That won’t change unless you take a management action to limit that population growth.”
Ruhs is the behind-the-scenes face who would be tasked with implementing a Trump administration proposal to allow euthanasia of healthy wild horses on federal lands and the unrestricted sale of those animals.
The plan is part of President Trump’s 2018 budget request, but Congress is split about whether to fulfill the proposal.
The Senate introduced a fiscal 2018 Interior-Environmental Protection Agency spending bill last month that includes language prohibiting BLM from selling without restriction tens of thousands of excess horses on federal rangelands and banning the agency from euthanizing animals that have been unsuccessfully offered for adoption more than three times.
That language is consistent with provisions Congress has tucked into appropriations bills in recent years, to the satisfaction of animal rights activists who consider the sale of wild horses and less restricted use of euthanasia inhumane.
“Euthanasia means mercy killing,” said Suzanne Roy, president of the American Wild Horse Campaign. “Killing tens of thousands of healthy horses is not euthanasia. That's mass killing. That's slaughter.”
The House’s fiscal 2018 Interior appropriations legislation, by contrast, contains a section that would lift restrictions on BLM to sell or, in specific circumstances, euthanize excess wild horses. The two chambers must reconcile their bills, so the fate of the horses is not clear.
The author of the House provision, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, has stressed that it would block horses from being made available for sales that would result in their “processing as commercial products, including for human consumption.”
But Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., who supports the Stewart amendment, is clear what the provision would mean.
“At its core, with this amendment, we will kill horses,” Amodei told the Washington Examiner in an interview. “I don’t use that or say that lightly. I have nothing against horses. I don’t want to kill horses. I know they make movies about horses, and not cows. I get that. They are an iconic symbol of the West. But I’ve got news for you, horse advocates. Policy makers, unless we are willing to get behind a policy and stop saying we won't kill one horse, at some point, we will have to start slaughtering horses because the overpopulation is so out of control. I don't support the status quo.”
In the early 20th century, as many as two million wild horses roamed the West, but commercial slaughter reduced the population.
In 1971, Congress gave BLM the authority to manage, protect, and control wild horses and burros on federal land, calling the animals “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” and preventing them from being slaughtered.
But horse populations have soared, partially because they have no natural predators, BLM officials say.
So, Congress has amended the law through the years, authorizing BLM to remove excess wild horses and burrows from the range. Under that process, BLM rounds up hard-to-reach wild horses with a helicopter and transfers them to private ranchers who the agency contracts with, at a cost of nearly $50 million per year.
The BLM removed 3,320 wild horses and burros in fiscal 2016. One amendment to the law, from 2004, directs the BLM to sell “without limitation” horses that are more than 10 years old or have been passed over for adoption at least three times.
Since 2005, the agency has sold more than 5,900 horses and burros, the agency says.
But Congress has restricted that authority during the appropriations process each year, ordering BLM not to sell any horses to slaughterhouses or “kill buyers.”
Making excess horses available through adoptions is always the first option, but the BLM struggled to find adopters during the economic recession. BLM officials say the agency placed about 7,500 horses in adoption at its peak in the early 2000s. The agency adopted out 2,912 horses and burros in fiscal 2016.
Ruhs says with limited demand for adoptions, there isn’t a large enough market for horses to be sold for commercial use because of the restrictions imposed by Congress.
“We do sell some horses, but the volume is pretty limited,” Ruhs said. “The sale is our last resort. We want more freedom in what that looks like. We just need the ability to sell more horses with less restrictions.”
Animals rights activists, however, favor other options they consider more humane and politically viable.
“The only way to get at the population problem is to manage reproductive rates,” said Roy of the American Wild Horse Campaign.
Her group and others call for setting aside more land for preserves and increasing the use of contraception. The BLM says it uses the best available fertility control vaccine, known as porcine zona pellucida (PZP). Since 2012, it has applied the drug on more than 1,000 horses.
But the vaccine is effective for a year at a time and using the drug is costly and onerous, the agency says.
Neda DeMayo, president of Return to Freedom, a nonprofit that operates a sanctuary with more than 500 wild horses and burros, says BLM can do better.
“We have used the fertility control vaccine since 1999 with 91-98 percent efficacy at sanctuary locations,” DeMayo said. “For a fertility control program to work, you need to actually use it broadly and correctly. Over time, we would see results and save millions of dollars a year in roundup and holding costs."
Ruhs says BLM is doing what it can, with what it has.
“It's extremely hard on us to not be able to manage wild horses the way we need to manage them,” Ruhs said. “Right now, there are just not that many options available to us.”