Take away the emotion from the wild-horse debate, and what's left? The economics.
Willis Lamm, who lives in Stagecoach and is an authority on the wild-horse issue, explained to me in a series of e-mails why the recent legislation proposed in Congress by Nevada representatives won't fly.
Better than that, Lamm, who says he's just looking for some pragmatic solutions, offered several clear-headed alternatives.
That's what this debate needs, in my opinion. The allure of wild horses, their beauty and symbolism of the Old West, fuels the passion of their advocates. It's the reason they can't stomach legislation that fails to ban the slaughter of wild horses.
It's also why they took it personally when Montana Sen. Conrad Burns slipped an amendment into the huge federal spending bill to allow wild horses to be sold for slaughter. It was a petty, backhanded thing to do, unworthy of a senator.
Nevertheless, he did it. Since then, the horse people have mounted a national campaign to get the Burns amendment reversed and, as Lamm says, find some practical answers.
The bill proposed by Sen. Harry Reid, however, wasn't greeted with enthusiasm. In fact, horse advocates said it's exactly the wrong way to go.
It was also a good introduction for me into how this whole wild-horse thing is more complicated than I thought.
For one thing, I thought Reid's suggestion of lowering the adoption fee to $25 made sense. More people could adopt them.
Wrong, says Lamm. It just makes the profit margin higher for livestock investors.
"Here's how the math would work," wrote Lamm, "for a livestock operator who had sufficient grassland with which to maintain and fatten up a group of horses (instead of cattle, for which the market is weakening because of the latest BSE confirmation.)
"My hypothetical scenario is set in the Oklahoma/Texas region where pasture is plentiful, transportation is reasonable and the slaughterhouses are relatively nearby.
Initial investment: $25,000
Shipping to pasture: $10,000
Maintenance costs: $50,000
Shipping to slaughter: $10,000
Casualties & losses: $25,000
Estimated costs: $125,000
900,000 lbs @ .50 lb : $450,000
Less costs: $125,000
Not bad, I'd say. Like any ranching operation, there are a lot of variables. But I think most ranchers who don't mind dealing in horse flesh would be willing to invest $125,000 and a year of pasture in order to realize a $325,000 profit, or even half of that.
That's why Lamm argues the adoption fee actually should be raised to $250. Anybody prepared to adopt a horse should have no trouble spending $250, so it shouldn't do anything to harm the adoption rate.
Here are some other suggestions from Lamm, who says "There are logical ways to resolve the wild-horse inventory issue, provided the goal isn't to leave a trap door open for livestock operators to make a quick buck."
n Prohibit the sale and export for slaughter or rendering into commercial products any horse, burro or mule provided through BLM's adoption or sale programs.
n Repeal the current legal prohibition on offering older animals for adoption.
n Waive the four-untitled animal limit for approved public benefit programs, animals acquired by public agencies, animals acquired by 501(c)3 charities and other programs as may be approved by the director (such as tribal programs run by Indian nations).
n Raise the minimum private adoption fee to $250 and use the additional funds for adopter education programs.
n Allow fee reductions to be applied to "frequent flyers," older horses and "special-needs" horses that may not be generally desirable. Such reduced fees may be as low as $25.
n Allow approved nonprofit groups to facilitate adoptions through cooperative agreements.
n Establish a formal adopter education program and integrate it into BLM's current public affairs/public outreach activities.
In an editorial on this page a couple of weeks ago, I wrote that wild-horse advocates run the risk of going the way of organizations like PETA if they push extreme views. In other words, people would start to ignore them, and they would lose credibility.
What I've found out since is that, while there are plenty of people emotionally attached to wild horses, there are plenty more like Lamm who combine their concern with constructive suggestions.
Nevada's congressional delegation could make political hay by working with them. Wild horses are going to be managed, for better or worse. It might as well be for the better.
n Barry Smith is editor of the Nevada Appeal. Contact him at editor@nevada appeal.com or 881-1221.