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Colorado and Wyoming lawmakers propose opposing bills for wild horse management

News brief: 

Two bills being proposed in state legislatures in the Mountain West differ completely on how to manage the region’s wild horse and burro population.

Colorado lawmakers are trying to prevent equine slaughter by making it a crime if a buyer “knows or should reasonably know” that the animal would be killed for human consumption. Meanwhile, the Wyoming legislature is considering close to the opposite: a resolution calling for the gathering of wild horses for meat.

The Bureau of Land Management has rounded up thousands of wild horses and burros in recent years to preserve the health of both the animals and public lands. According to the agency, herds can double in just four or five years “and quickly outgrow the ability of the land to support them,” which makes population control measures necessary.

Wild horses are also protected under federal law, meaning they officially can’t be harassed or killed. But reporting from the New York Times and other outlets has shown that an untold number of horses have been sold at livestock auctions, moved to Mexico or Canada and processed for consumption.

Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, said that’s a grim fate for what many see as an icon.

“Horse slaughter is un-American,” she said. “It's not supported by the public, and wild horse slaughter is not a solution to protecting and managing America's wild horses.”

Roy advocates for humane fertility control measures to keep populations in check, as well as protecting predators and partnering with local landowners to find individual solutions for wild horse issues. She said Colorado’s bill has the potential to preserve equines in the Centennial State through a strong legal framework with strict penalties for those that break the law.

“It becomes hopefully easier to catch the wild horses that are falling through the cracks,” Roy said.

Wyoming’s resolution – while not legally binding – starkly contrasts from its neighbor to the south. Lawmakers there say current management strategies of herds aren’t working, population numbers are growing too fast, land is being degraded and more aggressive culling is necessary.

“A pragmatic shift in United States’ wild horse and burro management policy is prudent and necessary to help address this crisis and achieve protection of wild horses and burros in manageable numbers,” the resolution states.

The bill also points out that Americans could benefit from transporting and selling horse meat to other countries. Eating horse meat is generally taboo throughout the U.S. – and horse slaughter was effectively banned in 2007 – but the meat is considered a delicacy in other countries.

Wyoming’s bill is sponsored by seven legislators, including the Senate president and House speaker. However – unlike with the Colorado bill – the proposal lacks legal teeth.

“This is a PR move and sort of posturing by the livestock industry, which wants to place the blame on wild horses for the damage that livestock are doing to the public lands in Wyoming,” Roy said.

Both bills are currently moving through their legislative processes in Denver and Cheyenne. The discourse follows a series of unsolved wild horse shootings in Utah and Arizona this past year. In most cases, nobody knows who is killing the animals or why.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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