By Thomas Mitchell

Our government masters too often seem downright schizophrenic.

Take the raging debates over what to do about two species — sage grouse and wild horses.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is hell bent to list the chicken-sized bird under the Endangered Species Act because they fear the population could become extinct. Such a listing would hurt farmers, ranchers, miners, recreation and oil and gas exploration on public and private land. Yet, the birds are legally hunted in Nevada and other states.

One study estimates there are 535,000 sage grouse ranging across 11 Western states, yet between 2001 and 2007 hunters bagged 207,000 sage grouse — and that doesn’t count the untold numbers that were wounded, escaping the game bag but later died. About 9,000 sage grouse were harvested in Nevada alone in the 2009 and 2010 hunting seasons.

On the other hand, there are an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 wild horses — actually feral horses, since they are not native to the region — roaming the Western range lands, though Bureau of Land Management officials say the open range can only sustain 27,000. Under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, it is illegal to harass or harm such horses and burros. Doing so is punishable by a fine of $2,000 or a year in jail.

Sometime next year the free-roaming wild horse population is expected to hit 69,000. The BLM already has 47,000 wild horses warehoused in corrals.

So, the federal government says there are too few sage grouse, but it is legal to shoot them, while there are too many wild horses, but it is illegal to shoot them.

Even though the 1971 law instructs the BLM to sell excess horses to any willing buyer “without limitation,” the agency has steadfastly refused to sell horses for slaughter for meat or other purposes.

But now that reluctance by the BLM may be moot. It turns out the budget deal signed into law in January by Obama withheld any money to pay for federal inspections for slaughterhouses that ship horse meat interstate or export overseas. No inspections, no slaughter.

Even though the sage grouse population is such that, even if it is declining at the rate estimated by the federal government, the birds can survive for several centuries in the wild, there is a push to list them as threatened or endangered.

But under the “management” of the Bureau of Land Management, the wild horse overpopulation has reached a crisis level.

In a strongly worded in-house memo written in August 2013, Joan Guilfoyle, the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro division chief, warned, “The wild horse and burro program is nearing the point of financial insolvency due to undesirable trends in every aspect of the program.”

The memo was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by a Texas wild horse advocacy group and The Associated Press.

More than 60 percent of the BLM’s $70 million annual budget for managing wild horses and burros is consumed by warehousing the animals in corrals, one of the largest of which is in Palomino Valley near Reno.

Guilfoyle placed further roundups of wild horses on her “what we can’t do” list. She recommended finding an effective long-acting contraceptive treatment of the horses on the range and wrote: “Funding and space prohibit the removal of any animals in the near future. Euthanasia of near-death animals is the only responsible alternative.”

She further called for an “aggressive adoption/sales program” to reduce the number of horses in holding pens, but adoptions have been declining in recent years and most of the mustangs being held in corrals are considered unadoptable.

Image also seemed to be a paramount concern. Guilfoyle recommended the agency continue hauling water to herds, because, “Water hauling where it is feasible, is the sensible thing to do to avoid preventable large scale mortality and a public spectacle.”

The Nevada Association of Counties and the Nevada Farm Bureau recently sued the BLM and others over the handling of wild horses, asking the court to issue an injunction or writ requiring the federal agencies to follow the original law because its current policies are starving the very animals the law was intended to protect.

The humane thing to do with starving horses on the range is not to round them up and house them for the rest of their unnatural lives at taxpayer expense. Contraception and, yes, euthanasia have to be options.

Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at He also blogs at