February 16, 2023

Legislature attempts to address wild horse issues

A free-roaming horse is seen near Chaco Canyon

A bill to address the wild or free-roaming horses passed the Senate Conservation Committee on a 7-0 vote on Thursday.

SB 301 builds upon existing law that allows fertility control measures or roundups followed by adoption of the wild horses or relocation. These control measures will only be allowed should the herd size exceed the levels that the landscape supports. It does not allow for the sale of wild horses to slaughter. In some cases, where the horse is severely injured, euthanasia would be allowed.

Roundups that occur would not be conducted by helicopter or by ATV, which are methods that have been controversial in the past when the Bureau of Land Management has rounded up mustangs using those vehicles.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Brenda McKenna, D-Corrales, and Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo.

McKenna said that communities like Placitas and Ruidoso have free-roaming horses that are found on state and private lands.

She said that an ad-hoc committee formed to try to come up with a solution and that Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, while not a sponsor of the bill, was involved in those discussions. These discussions have occurred over years.

Both McKenna and McQueen have contributed junior money this year to help the livestock board and the horse expert that the bill proposes to carry out the legislation.

“This bill is not a comprehensive free-roaming horse management bill,” McQueen said.

He said it does not address all the issues surrounding the free-roaming horses, but it is a step in the right direction.

Jessica Johnson with Animal Protection New Mexico served as an expert witness for the bill during the committee hearing. She said the bill keeps the same outcomes for horses that are in existing laws and adds additional protections such as an explicit prohibition on selling or transporting horses to slaughter and not allowing for helicopter or ATV roundups.

She said the bill adds language for what to do if the horse is found off of public lands.

Johnson said the proposal removes a DNA test that has been required. Horses that have Spanish or colonial horse DNA must go to a special preserve, but Johnson said such a preserve does not exist in New Mexico.

The bill would create an expert within the New Mexico Livestock Board whose qualifications include proof of expertise in free-roaming horse management. Johnson described this position as a contract position.

Joy Esparsen, the executive director of NM Counties, said counties and animal shelters are not equipped to deal with anything larger than companion animals.

“We keep getting looked at for dealing with horses,” she said. “We don’t have the expertise and we don’t have the resources.”

She said it makes sense for the livestock board to oversee wild horse management.

Mike Nees, a Placitas resident, also spoke in support. He described the free-roaming horses in his area as a category of horse that has fallen between the cracks, creating environmental, public safety and private property issues.

“It’s hard to understand how 800-pound horses can go unmanaged in New Mexico today, but they do and in Placitas we have 175 of these horses,” he said.

Nees said the herds are growing even with fertility control. 

Peggy Roberts, another Placitas resident and horse owner, said the free-roaming horses in Placitas live primarily on private property.

“The health and safety of the horses and the community are increasingly at risk,” she said.

She said the horses have overgrazed the land and residents have begun feeding the horses, leading to semi-domestication. 

Roberts said the free roaming horses now approach people walking or riding their horses, leading to frightening and dangerous situations.

“The Placitas horses are in an unnatural and unsustainable situation that is causing food aggression between herds, semi-domestication and horse deaths by vehicles,” she said.

Belinda Garland, the executive director of the New Mexico Livestock Board, said she does not believe that the proposed bill is a “fix all” for the wild horses, but it is a “strong step in the future” and allows for expertise that will help bring some solutions to improve the “lives of the horses that are now standing without forage.”

Bronson Corn from New Mexico Cattlegrowers opposed the bill, though he recognized that there is a problem. Corn questioned what would happen if there isn’t a place to put the horses, such as if no adoptions can be found. He said culling of the horse herd is needed to make the herd healthy.

The American Wild Horse Campaign also opposed the bill, which a representative says lacks a provision to preserve the wild horse herds. 

Sen. Steve Neville, R-Farmington, called the legislation “a step in the right direction” but he said it may not be enough.

“I don’t want to see the extreme steps taken, but we’re going to have to do something with this,” he said.

The bill now heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee.