RENO, Nevada (AP) — Nearly a dozen wild horses died in the first 10 days of a big mustang campaign in Nevada, deaths that a Las Vegas congresswoman called “tragic evidence of the desperate need to ban helicopters to capture animals on federal land.”
According to eyewitnesses, among the 11 deaths so far are five young foals, four horses with broken necks, a stallion with a severed hind leg who was chased by a helicopter and a horse rider as he tried to flee on three legs for 35 minutes before being euthanized.
The horse who broke his leg jumping over a trap fence last Wednesday was a leading Palomino stallion called “Mr. Sunshine” by those who watched him roam the wilderness for years southeast of Elko.
A longtime mustang observer and advocate watched the animal struggle on video.
“It made me physically sick to see what happened to that beautiful stallion I’ve known for years,” said Laura Lee, founder of the Nevada-based nonprofit Wild Horse Education.
Lee, who has been fighting arrests in court for more than a decade and is advocating for ending them outright, said his contract handlers were trying to squeeze the mares into the makeshift reef when the horse jumped and broke its leg.
He tried to fight the sharp pain and then struggled on three legs. He was then pursued to the other side of the valley and shot. The incident took more than 30 minutes to resolve. “This barbaric, cruel and deliberate act must end.”
Nevada Democratic Rep. Dina Titus said the deaths should serve as a wake-up call. “I helicoptered after a horse with a broken leg in the sweltering heat,” she said, criticizing a Bureau of Land Management practice that it is trying to ban through House legislation.
“This latest case of BLM mistreatment of wild horses in Nevada is tragic,” Titus said Tuesday.
Lee and others sued after several horses died during a survey ride a decade ago, and the office adopted a comprehensive animal welfare program in 2015 that, among other things, bans helicopters from contacting the mares.
But the agency has resisted efforts to stop using helicopters, saying they are needed to reach remote herds.
“BLM policies and personnel prioritize the welfare and humane care of all wild horses during all collection operations,” bureau spokeswoman Heather O’Hanlon said in an email to the Associated Press Monday. She said the agency has a Department of Agriculture veterinarian who assesses and monitors the animals’ conditions and consults with office officials to ensure the health and safety of horses and people.
Injuries to wild horses and animals sustained during roundups are rare, said bureau spokeswoman Rita Henderson. It said the “vast majority” – more than 99% – had gathered without serious accidents or injuries causing death.
The bureau says its latest run began July 9 in eastern Nevada between Elko and Eli because the overpopulated flocks are seriously damaging the range’s environment.
Nevada is home to nearly two-thirds of the 68,928 wild horses that the bureau estimated on March 1 were roaming federal lands in 10 western states stretching from California to Montana.
The agency plans to collect about 2,000 horses from the tour in three regions—Antelope Valley, Goshute, and Spruce-Pequop. She says the estimated 6,852 horsepower is nearly 14 times the range the range can handle.
The office said that as of Tuesday they had collected 1,087 people.
By balancing herd size with what the land can support, the agency aims to protect habitat for other wildlife species including sage grouse, hornbeam antelope, deer and elk, said Gerald Dixon, the office’s Elko district manager.
But critics say the real goal is to appease ranchers who don’t want horses competing with their livestock for valuable fodder in a desert where annual rainfall averages less than 10 inches (25 cm).
The American Wild Horse campaign publishes graphic photos and videos taken by Lee and others to “educate the public about BLM’s inhumane approach to managing wild horses,” said Grace Kuhn, a spokeswoman for the group.
“This cruel treatment of wild horses is unacceptable and far below the level Americans have come to expect of these iconic animals,” she said.