Activists, legislators discuss WV’s wild horse problem

January 23, 2019
Part of a herd of horses gather on top of a former mine in Mingo County. Across Southern West Virginia, many people let horses loose on the flat, open land left by mountaintop removal mining in the region, according to Tinia Creamer, founder of Heart of Phoenix.

As winter weather hits in full, Tinia Creamer, worries about more than frozen pipes and icy roads. She thinks about the hundreds of wild horses roaming Southern West Virginia’s coalfields, where they will find food in the cold weather and the potential danger they can pose to the public.

When temperatures drop, these horses — hundreds in Mingo County alone, which is only a fraction compared to others living on abandoned mine sites and mountains throughout the coalfields — will often find their way into traffic, licking salt off the roads. The plants and crops that can sustain them in the spring and summer die, meaning many horses are left malnourished, said Creamer, founder of Heart of Phoenix, a West Virginia-based nonprofit dedicated to rescuing and rehabbing horses in Appalachia.

Last week. Creamer met with legislators to discuss the issue of wild horses and explore potential legislative options to help support entities, like Heart of Phoenix, that tend to respond to horse-related challenges as they arise.

“Last year we laid the groundwork to discuss the issue so this session they could be potentially drafting a bill,” Creamer said. “I’m not sure we got to where we needed to be. I worry they didn’t see the most important points, and instead focused on the possibility of tourism.”

Creamer has been a longtime critic of using the wild horses in the state for tourism boons. Some are feral, she said, due to being out in the wild for so long. Many are starving because of a dearth of resources.

Organizations that attempt to use the horses for tourism now — like camping and ATV resorts in the coalfields — take no responsibility for their well-being.

“I understand West Virginia is desperate to find a reasons for people to visit, but to see starving horses, that’s not really the picture we want to paint,” Creamer said. “Now I am kind of fearful that we asked for legislation, we asked [the legislature] to examine this, and what if we get something else ... maybe it was better left alone.”

Sen. Mark Maynard, R-Wayne, sits as chairman of the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Subcommittee, which Creamer met with on Tuesday. He said he’s brought the issue of free-roaming horses up to the state Department of Natural Resources, but was informed they don’t have the capacity to deal with the problem.

Today, Creamer said local law enforcement agencies are the primary enforcers and supporters for issues with wild horses. She would like to see a bill passed that would offer these agencies more assistance and authority to monitor and punish individuals abandoning horses on mine lands.

“That’s the difference between here and a lot of other places that have been able to use horses for tourism — they really are wild there,” Creamer said.

In West Virginia, Creamer said most of the horses considered to be “wild horses” are actually abandoned by people who don’t want to care for them anymore, or are looking to sell them, but let them go in the meantime to save costs on care. In short, they aren’t native to the land.

Maynard, while seemingly open to hearing the risks and challenges of the free-roaming horse population, said he is always “trying to turn a negative into a positive.”

He said there] is definite potential for tourism, as well as for veterinarians who could possibly train on these horses, but there would “need to be safeguards.”

The details of caring for these horses, though, are expensive ~ Creamer said Heart of Phoenix spends $200,000 to care for just 90 horses. Add on the expenses of corralling them up and transporting, and the costs rise.

Another potential challenge for West Virginia is that many of these horses are roaming on privately owned mine lands. While the mines themselves often aren’t active anymore, the companies that used to operate them still own the land, and have expressed to Creamer that the horses are not always a welcome addition. They can hinder reclamation efforts as they destroy crops and bring with them other liabilities.

Creamer said none of these concerns really came up in her meeting with Maynard and other legislators, who also heard from a horse rescue expert in Kentucky. She worries the focus of the meeting was based too heavily on potential upsides instead of addressing the issues at hand.

Creamer hopes to have better luck meeting with representatives from the Department of Agriculture, which has a track record of helping Heart of Phoenix with herding horses, offering up equipment like trailers when necessary and lending expertise.

For now, Maynard plans to examine how other states in the country — both in Appalachia and outside — monitor and control wild animal populations. He’s looking at how California and Arizona regulate wild burros roaming free, and at places like Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky for legislation specifically on horses.

“I know horses don’t seem like such a big issue, especially with everything else going on in the state, but there has to be something we can do,” Creamer said. “This wasn’t the meeting I expected, but I hope we can have more discussion around this and soon, maybe, we can have an answer.”

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