Culling Animals: Not So Black And White

I sat in the small cluttered office watching my future boss rattle off the question as if it were not a loaded gun: “Do you think culling is the right or wrong thing to do, and give examples?” This was a tough question to ask a young 21-year-old at her first serious job interview. I paused for an extended period of time and finally asked for clarification on culling, because at the time, I had limited real life understanding of what the word really meant.

Culling, when referring to wildlife, is removing animals from a population that are surplus. Most often, culling refers to the slaughter of surplus animals, but animals can also be sold or adopted into captivity. On a small scale, insects are culled around homes about twice a year to keep populations from rising. On a larger scale, deer are culled in Texas to maintain healthy population numbers for the wild space available. An overabundance of deer leads to decimation of plants to a point where vegetation can’t regenerate and grow. Due to a lack of predators, culling of the deer population is a necessary means to maintain sustainable ecosystems.

Recently, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced the culling of 45,000 wild horses, and the public was in an uproar. My heart broke as well when I read the news, but I wasn’t mad about the decision to cull. I was mad that we got here in the first place.

The history of wild horses in North America is a bit complex. Horses were native to North America but went extinct about 11,000-13,000 years ago. The current “wild” horses on our continent were introduced by man (exotic species) and, due to the absence of natural predators, have increased in population size in recent years. The lack of natural predators such as wolves and mountain lions stem from our own doing as well. Now, maintaining a sustainable population of horses is under our control, and that means making tough, unpopular decisions at times.

Due to the public outcry, the BLM has halted the cull and will instead continue to care for the horses, for now. The horses aren’t exactly wild at this point either. Most are held in rangeland corrals and fed, costing the BLM $49 million in 2015 — that’s almost half the entire BLM budget! The BLM has tried limiting offspring using sterilization and birth control techniques (something that should be revisited in the future) and working with adoption agencies to find homes, but there are too many at this point. We let these animals down.

It’s not easy trying to manage wildlife in a system that has been wrought with the touch of human destruction. Norway is attempting to cull much of their wolf population in response to high sheep deaths from wild wolves. Is this right or wrong? Hippos are on the cull block in Kruger National Park due to a heavy drought reducing the population’s chance of survival. Is this right or the wrong? Many times a cull can be an excuse to cover the opportunity to gain money from sport hunting, but this is not the case for the horses.

We entrust our government agencies to use all of the data and resources to make the best decisions for wildlife and the environment on behalf of the general public. In this case, their choices are limited and time is ticking.

The land needs to take priority, otherwise both the land and animals will be destroyed. The majority of land should be preserved for future generations of native wildlife, not horses nor cattle. A few environmental organizations have used the visibility of the horse cull to bring attention to cattle grazing on the BLM land which contributes to environmental damage.

In the 14 years since that question was asked of me, and many more interviews, I continually try to devise a better answer to the question. As time goes on, the line between right and wrong becomes more difficult. We made many past mistakes, and now we’re left trying to patch together a solution.


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