Wild mustangs are a problem. A fascinating problem. Even captivating. Just hearing those half-ton hide-wrapped packages of muscle and bone snort and stomp as they toss their heads can knock your hat in the creek. It is hearty pleasure to visit the wild horse herds close by.
Some of the wild horses’ ancestors were turned loose during the Dust Bowl as ranchers went hungry, went bust, then just went. Life in the wild is unforgiving but the horses reproduce quickly. Herds double in size every five years or so, fast enough to damage the range.
So the Bureau of Land Management takes thousands of surplus horses off the range every year. Still, there are about three times more horses left on the range than it can sustain. Corrals and rented pastures are now home to 46,000 wild horses removed from open range.
The BLM says it spends $48,000 over the life of each of those surplus mustangs. That’s 60 percent of the BLM’s whole wild horse budget. Because they reproduce so fast, what was once a financial trickle is becoming a stream.
Horse people say about two-thirds of the horses can be trained for riding given sufficient human commitment. Most horse owners cannot justify owning them, except as living souvenirs.
Though they don’t know and don’t care, the wild horses are rock stars. They have passionate human fans.
The BLM could stem taxpayers’ growing losses by selling the corralled wild horses for humane processing as society routinely does with millions of cattle, hogs and chickens.
Hunting is a possible substitute for natural predation, too. The surplus horses could make money to be used for the horses left on the range.
However, the wild horse activists object to managing the corralled horses as livestock or wildlife. They seem to prefer the Hindus’ management of cattle. That is perfectly fine if the activists pony up to pay for it.
The BLM bowed to the activists and now keeps the extra horses as permanent guests of you and me. It defied its own Wild Horse Advisory Board of citizen experts to do so.
For their taxes, the wild horse activists get every public service all other taxpayers get. In addition, they get the extra horses tossed in for free.
Maintaining surplus mustangs in corrals is a romantic gesture. If the policy has practical value for society, it is not obvious. Unavoidably, it siphons resources away from helping poor people or reducing pollution or curing cancer.
This policy issue is less tainted by childish partisanship and big money interests than most. Yet, how can something with such a simple solution be such an unsolvable problem?
If public bodies cannot make small, easy decisions, it is no wonder they cannot make bigger, more complicated spending decisions. The price is a public debt that is headed for Mars.
Perhaps a peek at the groups involved will help us understand these logjams better.
Wild horse activists are narrowly focused on the mustangs. That’s fine. They have successfully wrangled the cost of the surplus horses onto the general citizenry without public agreement. That’s not so fine. Our political system should be better able to balance romance with finance.
Most citizens expect agencies like the BLM to guard the public cookie jar.
Some observers have long theorized that bureaucracies are not simply butlers to the public interest. They want their own slice of glory; more turf, bigger budgets, larger staffs. If so, adding the lifetime care of surplus mustangs to their job serves that goal.
Although the BLM’s own citizen Wild Horse Advisory Board recommended selling the surplus horses or euthanizing them, the BLM sided with the horse activists instead. So, public agencies like the taste of cookies.
For their part, politicians quietly slide the invoice for the surplus horses over to our most naïve citizens – the kids.
It is down to us, the general citizenry. We are the last line of defense of the common good. The individual citizens who actually pay the bills should control where their tax money goes.
Our current authoritarians declare, “You will pay for surplus wild horses.”
Instead, citizen should be able to say, “I can pay for extra mustangs, or for education for kids in Harlem, or space missions, or something else, as I wish.”
Let’s cowboy up to improve our democracy. If it’s a finished product now, we will be finished soon.
Vince Emmer is a financial analyst in Gypsum who runs Citizens Due Diligence in his off hours. He can be reached at email@example.com.