Colorado and Wyoming: A Study in Contrasts on Wild Horse Policy


Colorado and Wyoming, adjacent to each other and both with a colorful frontier story, owe a tremendous debt to the horse, the one animal that stands above all others in its importance to the history of both states. Yet while one of these states seeks to protect its equines against cruelty and greed, the other is bowing to craven interests that would send them to a horrific fate in foreign slaughter plants.

How could two states be so different in how they treat our beloved equines? It comes down to a fundamental difference not just in how they view wild horses, but in how they view public lands and native wildlife.

The campaign by the Bureau of Land Management to remove the majority of wild equines from their designated habitat on public lands to benefit commercial livestock has ignited controversy across the American West. While the helicopter roundups of tens of thousands of wild equines have provoked strong efforts to protect them, including the introduction of federal legislation, a small but vocal minority cheers the agency’s cruelty and views these national icons as a commodity to be exploited with no regard for welfare or their treasured place on our public lands. Many groups, including Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy, are working hard to stop them.

In Colorado, a new bill introduced in the legislature would ban the slaughter of equines and the sale of equines for slaughter. In addition to an outright ban on slaughtering equines, the bill, SB 23-038, takes aim at livestock auctions where horses both wild and domestic are bought and sold, many destined for slaughter plants in Canada and Mexico. Meat companies in those countries kill and butcher American horses, donkeys and mules, and sell the meat for consumption in parts of the world where it is considered a delicacy. Many Coloradans are rightfully horrified by the cruelty of horse slaughter and demand a new state law to shut it down.

Meanwhile, just next door in Wyoming, John Winter, a Republican legislator from Thermopolis, is championing a joint resolution that calls on the federal government and Congress to enact legislation to allow the capture and slaughter of wild horses for export to those same foreign countries. Media accounts detail Winter’s close relationship with Wyoming BLM staff, who, though their agency’s official position is against such a plan, clearly are supportive and even encourage his efforts.

While Governor Jared Polis fought to intercede on behalf of Colorado’s wild horses last year to halt two highly controversial helicopter roundups, Wyoming’s leaders cheered the roundups in that state and called for the mass slaughter and butchering of Wyoming’s herds. In addition to the bill to stop horse slaughter, Colorado legislators also will be considering a bill to create sanctuaries for wild horses; meanwhile, Wyoming lawmakers have called for the areas where horses are removed to be immediately turned over to ranchers to graze their cattle and sheep.

While Colorado’s approach celebrates our equines and seeks to impose basic protections for them, the hypocrisy of Wyoming’s approach is galling. In response to the BLM’s helicopter roundups of the Sand Wash Basin, West Douglas and Pieance herds last year, Coloradans, led by Polis, sent the BLM a strong message: Horses belong on designated wild horse Herd Management Areas (HMAs), and livestock don’t. Wyoming, meanwhile, appears bent on eliminating these icons and symbols of freedom entirely from the state’s public lands.

In Colorado, just weeks after the BLM removed hundreds of wild horses from the Sand Wash Basin HMA on the pretext that the land couldn’t support them, the agency allowed thousands of sheep to swarm onto the same area, prompting outrage among Colorado equine advocates and taxpayers. They resent the agency’s arrogance and shameless pandering to public land ranchers, who enrich themselves by grazing their livestock on our public lands at a taxpayer-subsidized rate of just $1.35 per Animal Unit Month. In fact, the Colorado bills are a direct consequence of the BLM’s haughty dismissal of Polis and the will of the people of Colorado to protect, not persecute, the state’s wild horses.

Wyoming’s policy makers, on the other hand, elevate commercial livestock to a position of preeminence on public lands. And it’s not just wild horses that pay the price; under Wyoming law, wolves are considered a pest to be shot on sight, and the state has called for Wyoming grizzlies to be removed from the Endangered Species Act so they can be hunted and killed by trophy hunters. By contrast, Colorado voters voted to reintroduce wolves, repudiating the livestock ranchers and sport hunters who resent wolves as an unwanted intrusion on their place of privilege in calling the shots on our public lands.

It’s clear which of the two states is out of step with most Americans on this topic. In a recent poll, 83 percent of Americans strongly opposed the slaughter of American equines, viewing them as valued partners in recreation, work and sport, not as food. In other words, while Wyoming insists that wild equines are mere “livestock,” most Americans, and likely a broad majority of Coloradans, see them as more akin to dogs and cats in how we relate to them. A strong majority of Americans would oppose slaughtering and butchering homeless American dogs and exporting their meat to China and Korea, yet judging from their shameless eagerness to put private profits above mainstream humane values, we might expect Wyoming officials like Winter to actually get on board with the idea.

When the American people learned that our wild horses were being horribly exploited and killed to supply the pet food trade, Congress and President Richard Nixon responded by passing the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. The law enshrined our people’s love and respect for wild horses and burros and the central role they played in our nation’s history.

In Colorado, that love and respect endures triumphantly. One can only hope that in Wyoming, enough of it remains to thwart those who once again would relegate these animals to the wrong side of a balance sheet.

Scott Beckstead works with the nonprofit Animal Wellness Action Colorado and is director of campaigns for Animal Wellness Action and Center for a Humane Economy in Washington, D.C.; he teaches animal law at Willamette University in Oregon and provides training to law enforcement agencies on investigating equine cruelty and neglect. frequently publishes commentaries and essays on matters of interest to the Denver community; the opinions in them are those of the authors, not Westword. Have one you’d like to submit? Send it to [email protected], where you can also comment on this piece.

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