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Beyond the Butterfly Net

When I accepted the job as Executive Director of the New Mexico Livestock Board my father-in-law, Dogie Jones, who had been in that position 40 years ago told me: “I’m going to give you just two pieces of advice, and then I’ll shut up and not ever bother you about how you do your job. First, the State Veterinarian works for you, not the other way around; and second, you are not dog catchers.” He was true to his word and, with no further input, let me figure out for myself not only the job, but also his cryptic message.”

I inherited a talented, experienced State Veterinarian whose ability I greatly respected, and it was not long before we were in agreement about the lines of authority. But what about the “dog catchers?” This other familial word of wisdom took a while for me to untangle; a mystery whose underlying principle was to be found woven in the organization’s history and governing laws.

In 1887 the cattlemen of New Mexico were able to obtain the necessary authority from the Territorial Legislature to build a regulatory defense against livestock diseases, including the tick borne “Texas Fever” arriving with the great north-bound cattle drives and decimating native herds. The newly formed New Mexico Cattle Sanitary Board and, a few years later, the Sheep Sanitary Board became the regulatory animal heath bulwarks for the territory’s livestock industry. Soon after, the Board became New Mexico’s first territorial law enforcement organization, confronting and taking down the scourge of rustlers that had permeated the southwest. By the 20th Century, the Livestock Code of New Mexico had become the model for animal health and ownership protection and is emulated to varying extents in most of the western states. New Mexico’s brand, ownership, and health requirements for all livestock were brought together in 1967 under a merger with the new name, New Mexico Livestock Board, with a new consolidated “Livestock Code.”

The foundation for the bulk of New Mexico’s Livestock Code is built around integrity of ownership. Accordingly, all livestock must have an owner of record evidenced by a brand or sufficient documentation. Any folks who confuse the principle of ownership with the virtue of sharing will find themselves introduced to another side of their friendly Livestock Inspectors, and to a stern system of justice.

Inspection, investigation, and movement control are necessary and integral to protecting ownership as well as preventing or containing the spread of listed diseases. This system prevents transport of stolen or diseased, as well as stray or feral, livestock. It is a simple and effective principle, based on assuring integrity by balancing optimum protection and minimum adverse effect for livestock owners. When “no-brand” cattle or other livestock with no proof of ownership are presented to the inspector, the law requires the estray process to determine whether they have an owner and, if not, see to it they are placed by sale into the hands of an owner.

Not long into my tenure the “dog catcher doctrine” became clear. There are some, mostly outside the industry, who believe the New Mexico Livestock Board chases around the state with metaphorical butterfly nets to capture un-owned livestock. As the legitimate livestock producers know, it doesn’t. The livestock industry is who created the agency, drafted its legislation and rules, and gives representative input on how they want their business, and their property rights, protected. The Livestock Board’s Inspectors are invited onto property to determine ownership of livestock, and are also responsible to maintain vigilance over the movement across district and state lines. Horses are, by law, livestock subject to the same statutes and must have an owner.

The industry knows the ecological, animal health, and economic deterioration that can accompany proliferation of feral livestock, and it relies upon the Livestock Code to prescribe the process by which stray animals are handled. This sometimes puts the industry, and its representative agency, at odds with special interest activist groups who want all hands off of stray horses delusionally regarded as wild, majestic, original natives of the land. Such groups, always glad to name a common villain, are quick to proffer the notion that the Livestock Board is actively in the hunt to send wild horses to slaughter.

The movement to declare bands of feral horses to be “wild,” claiming ancestral connection to the horses of the conquistadors, is growing. Special interest groups have intimidated federal agencies like the BLM into taking little or no action to reduce and dispense the alarming overpopulation of horses, most of whose histories have nothing to do with original Spanish and Indian ponies, but rather are descendants of horses abandoned over the last several decades. Today the state of Nevada is facing an emergency situation, unable to find resolution to what must be done with herds of feral horses numbering in the many thousands and whose numbers are destroying an extremely sensitive arid habitat. The BLM, which controls more than 80% of the state’s landmass, is cowering in the face of a “public outcry,” and no rules seem to exist to govern a solution.

In New Mexico, a minor special interest calling itself the “Wild Horse Observers Association (WHOA)” has attempted for years to designate a herd of feral horses running loose on BLM and private land in the Placitas, NM area, as being “wild,” although it is commonly believed that most if not all are domestic horses and their offspring that have strayed over the years from the San Felipe Pueblo and elsewhere, and never retrieved. Court battles have been joined for years over whether they should be legally considered livestock subject to the Livestock Code. The Livestock Board has long been aware that it may someday be called upon to estray some 100-plus horses if they are ever presented by the landowner (BLM) for inspection and, at that time, also called upon to attempt to nebulously determine which, if any, are descendents of original Spanish horses in order to be placed on whatever public lands “wild horses” are supposed to reside.

Looking at a more recent situation, a small band of stray horses has wandered at will for years in the Ruidoso/Alto area, often on privately owned land and homesteads. A property owner recently penned them and contacted the Livestock Board, which, unable to determine ownership, took possession and commenced the statutory estray process to either identify the owner(s) or sell the horses in order to establish an owner. Some of the area residents demanded their return and touched off a series of demonstrations, biased news reporting, fundraising (of course), and general condemnation of an agency doing its job. WHOA, apparently seizing an opportunity to broaden their influence, stepped out of their usual Placitas beat and entered the Alto fracas, filing an injunction that will effectively force the judiciary to, among other things, define a wild horse. At the time of this writing the court case is being litigated.

The plaintiffs’ goal in this case is to have the horses designated by a judge to be “wild” and turned back out to roam at will in the Alto/Ruidoso community. If the court arbitrarily bypasses state law to “protect” the subject horses under judicial fiat, then a precedent may be set for any feral horses anywhere in New Mexico. The only necessary elements would be a local uproar and a special interest group with a pro-bono attorney. Also, since this is an issue whose venue is mostly deeded land, a poorly thought out decision could potentially create a precedent for forcing private property owners into accepting the trespass of free roaming livestock under condition of a “wild” designation. The Livestock Board, which has been a successful bastion against the proliferation of stray and feral animals, will have had its hands tied, and WHOA with their small ad hoc network of activists will have succeeded in further corroding the statutory protection of livestock, their owners, and the land itself.

Over the coming decades, the long term unintended consequence of all this can potentially rival the crisis being experienced in Nevada, which had its beginnings the 1970s with an advocate who became known as Wild Horse Annie, along with her own small ad hoc network of activists. Today the BLM in that state is stuck with thousands of “wild” horses that need to be taken off the land to prevent further destruction, but have nowhere to go.

I retired from the Livestock Board a few years ago knowing the constant assault by external interests unrelated to the business of livestock raising would be among the most aggravating challenges for the next leader. Had I left a letter in the desk for my able successor, I would have repeated my father-in-law’s advice about state veterinarians and dog-catchers. The note would also have contained a discussion about the unique autonomy of a state agency whose moral and ethical obligation is to the livestock industry, not the administration. I would also have given a heads-up about a chattering class, the likes of which Teddy Roosevelt described as “cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat,” that doesn’t understand or respect the vital mandate of the Livestock Board, and doesn’t care to. But then I know a letter was not necessary, as the issues of the day quickly temper the steel of a good Director as he deals with the ever-rattling barbarians at the gate.

So, Dogie was right. There are no butterfly nets in the Livestock Board inventory. It is not an animal control office chasing stray animals, nor should it ever be. Rather, it is a well organized law enforcement agency with a dynamic 129 year history, created by the livestock industry itself through the legislative process. The New Mexico Livestock Board operates under a solid, time-tested set of laws, rules, and protocols for the protection of livestock and their owners. Portions of that Livestock Code are now vulnerable to compromise, depending on the outcome of the Alto horse litigation. A bad decision emerging from that case may have the effect of confusing and stifling the estray laws, with adverse ramifications eventually but inevitably haunting livestock producers and landowners across the state.

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