A judge ruled on July 16th that the free-roaming bands of horses around Placitas, New Mexico are “not wild.” So what does that mean for the horses?
Top photo: Wikimedia Commons/John Fowler/Creative Commons License
The wild horse and burro issue in the United States has been a long-standing source of conflict, with battle lines and sides not always clearly drawn. Though protected by an act of Congress, America’s wild horses are still being rounded up and removed from protected territories at a steady rate, with overall numbers of horses remaining in the wild dwindling to the tens of thousands. (Wild herds once were estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands of horses.) As with many such issues in this country, there are both extremists and moderates on all sides of the debate: some say that the American West should be turned completely over back to wild horses, while others call for naturally self-sustaining herds in closed ecosystems, while others maintain that the horses range onto private land or public lands managed by livestock grazing associations, taking food and water away from domesticated animals. Fingers are pointed, freely and often.
Regardless of where you might stand individually on the issue, the facts have just become painfully clear for a herd of horses roaming the area in and around Placitas, New Mexico. Estimated to number around 100 animals, the horses roam the foothills in this rural community, including not only federal lands but private property and roadways. There have been a handful of accidents on public highways in recent years involving the free-roaming horses, and some private residents complain about the animals roaming onto their property, fouling waterways, leaving manure and damaging property. In drought conditions, the horses massacre the grasses, feeding faster than the grass can grow back–the herd effectively strips the ground and leaves it dead. Other members of the community see the horses as a kind of mascot, a charming rural aspect to life in Placitas, and a living testament to the heritage of the American West. Bands within the herd have become well-socialized and some residents and tourists have taken to hand-feeding the horses (which poses its own set of problems, as one might imagine happens when people start feeding other kinds of wild animals.)
With tensions coming to a head in recent months, Distrcit Judge Valerie Huling made her ruling in a case brought by the Wild Horse Observers Association, or WHOA, who was suing the New Mexico Livestock Board in response to the board’s removal of over 50 horses in a combination of 11 individual calls by private landowners. When WHOA failed to prove adequately that the horses were in fact truly wild, the herd was ruled to be estray, meaning that the horses could be handled like escaped livestock. This means that the Livestock Board now has the right to round up all of the horses that are no longer protected by the Wild Horse Act.
To be fair, it’s completely possible that these horses are just feral livestock–thousands of horses in 2007 and 2008 were turned loose after the economic downturn, with feral herds forming along the sides of the highways in states all over the West. Old-timer residents of Placitas have claimed to have seen the horses for at least 30 years, but that doesn’t mean that domestic horses couldn’t have also been turned loose to join the herd. Regardless of the horses’ wild-or-not state, they’re living too close to human residents for all parties to continue in safety. Pro-horse residents of Placitas claim that they love to have the horses around because their children love to feed them. Maybe it’s just an opinion, but that doesn’t sound too wild to me.
There doesn’t seem to be a clear answer for the Placitas free-roaming horses. What do you think? Should the judge’s ruling be overturned? Should the horses perhaps be transported to another, more suitable federally-protected location? Or should the herd be taken into captivity and adopted out to private owners to take care of them? Or should the horses simply be left alone to continue to coexist, for better or for worse, among their human Placitas neighbors?