Joe Cook and the museum he runs are designated by state law as experts on wild horses with the power to order them captured, moved, neutered or even euthanized. He has no idea why.
“It was really a mistake,” he says.
Cook is director of the University of New Mexico Museum of Southwestern Biology and also curator of its mammal division.
The state law currently being disputed between the New Mexico Livestock Board and advocates for Ruidoso’s free-roaming horses puts the museum in sole charge of determining whether any given herd of wild horses is too big for its own good or for the range it occupies.
“That language was put in there 10 or 12 years ago without our knowledge,” Cook told the News in a phone interview Tuesday. “It was slipped in there, and unfortunately we didn’t know about it.”
Cook would like very much to see the museum slipped back out of the law, and it’s possible he may get his wish.
A bill currently making its way through the state Senate would amend the law to remove Cook’s museum and give its statutory job to something called the Range Improvement Task Force at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.
This time legislators have at least given their designated wild horse experts a heads up.
“I’ve been approached,” said Task Force coordinator Samuel Smallidge, who has a doctorate in range science. “I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it. I know these things have a tendency to be amended.”
Smallidge is probably right not to invest too much time in the new assignment yet. The main thrust of Senate Bill 126 involves other changes to the law that may encounter stiff resistance, since they appear to strengthen the Livestock Board’s control over wild horses that some horse advocates don’t think the board should have.
Swapping in the NMSU Task Force for the Museum of Southwestern Biology appears unrelated to that goal, except for one thing. The proposed new language would get the Task Force involved with wild horses only when the Livestock Board called on them.
The existing state law contains no such requirement. The museum’s mammal division is authorized to take action on its own if it determines “that a wild horse herd exceeds the number of horses that is necessary for preserving the genetic stock of the herd and for preserving and maintaining the range.”
In such a case, the museum can order birth control measures on the herd, and have excess animals either moved to other public land or to a horse preserve, or adopted or sent to a rescue facility. Animals found by a veterinarian to be crippled or unhealthy can be euthanized on the museum’s authority.
The museum wasn’t a completely off-the-wall choice for the job. Cook has a doctorate in biology, and he and his staff do study the relationship between wildlife populations and their environments.
“But not wild horses,” he said. “We feel we’re not the right people to help figure out anything about wild horses in New Mexico. We’re not horse specialists.”
But under the proposed amendments, the Task Force would do nothing unless the Livestock Board asked it to assess any given herd of wild horses.
“Upon request of the board to determine the viability of a specific New Mexico wild horse herd on the range they occupy,” the statute says the Task Force will make an assessment and report back to the Livestock Board. Then it’s up to the board to do all the things the law now says the museum would do, i.e. moving, adopting, neutering or euthanizing excess animals.
One other change from existing law is that there’s no mention in the proposed amendments of “preserving the genetic stock of the herd.” The focus of the Task Force would be entirely on the range.
Smallidge said the Task Force is well qualified for the role the proposed amendments would assign to it.
“The Range Improvement Task Force does represent demonstrated capabilities in collecting scientific data to inform decision makers regarding the ecology and management of New Mexico rangelands,” Smallidge said.
“Regarding the legislation,” he added, “I will leave that in the hands of the New Mexico Legislature and respond appropriately to their decision.”
©2017 the Ruidoso News (Ruidoso, N.M.)
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