What to Do About Wild Horses on Public Land?

Dealing with feral horses costs more than 60 percent of the BLM budget, and there’s no solution in sight.

Imagine a proposal to introduce an exotic species to the sagebrush steppe of the American West. This species could successfully reproduce and expand into forested areas, uplands and wetlands. It would be a large charismatic creature that attracted a passionate following — people who loved it so much that the management of its expanding population would be restricted by law. Some of them would be so passionate that armed guards would be necessary at academic meetings about the species.

The downside of this beautiful animal would be that it outcompeted native wildlife, plants and insects, degraded water sources and turned grasslands into deserts of cheat grass or dust. As its numbers increased, native species would be devastated.

The cost to the public of supporting these creatures would increase each year until it was projected to exceed $1 billion in 20 years or so. And ultimately, when the natural resources were exhausted, many would starve or die of thirst.

Clearly, this is a difficult scenario to support. It was not envisioned by Congress when legislators passed the 1971 Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. The act directed the Bureau of Land Management to manage free-roaming horses to “maintain a thriving natural ecological balance and multiple use relationship.”

The law has been amended several times to address the health of the land and management of the horses. It allows for the humane “removal or destruction” of “excess” animals “so as to restore a thriving natural ecological balance to the range, and protect the range from the deterioration associated with overpopulation.”

The act further details practices like the removal of old and sick animals as well as the removal of horses from private land — private landowners are forbidden from shooing them off. It also covers proper adoption procedures. But in reality, due to lobbying efforts by horse advocates, actions by Congress and the lack of adequate horse management funding for the BLM, the wild horse population has exploded beyond the tipping point, both ecologically and economically.

I recently attended the National Wild Horse and Burro Summit in Salt Lake City — the meeting I mentioned earlier that required armed guards. Most of the attendees were academics, presenting research papers detailing the effects of overpopulation of horses and burros on rangeland ecosystems. Outside were demonstrators who dubbed the meeting the “Slaughter Summit.”

Go to the websites of wild horse advocates, and you’ll be told that wild horses, unlike their domestic counterparts, cannot overgraze or harm other wildlife species, and that they are native to North America, despite arriving on Spanish ships alongside pigs, cattle and sheep.

These supporters further argue that if only greedy ranchers would stop raising cattle and sheep, an infinite grass resource would exist for an exponentially expanding wild horse herd. Never mind that those ranchers produce food, manage the resource and support their local economies and communities.

The arguments of these advocates are countered by facts on www.BLM.gov.

Forty-six years ago, an estimated 17,300 feral horses and 8,045 burros were on the range. In March 2017, about 73,000 horses were counted on the range. Another 46,000 were held in corrals, 29 percent of the total, and “eco-sanctuaries” held one percent.

These feral horses cost the BLM about $50 million per year, or 63 percent of the agency’s total annual budget of $80.4 million. Adoption, which is difficult and costs about $4,500 per horse, has declined by 70 percent over the past 10 years to 2,912 in 2016.

Fertility control has helped some, but the drug PZP must be administered every year to each mare. This is physically impossible in large rugged horse management areas, and it requires horse “gathers,” which some advocates consider unnatural and overly stressful. Spaying is not safe, because the mares are pregnant virtually all the time. Left unchecked, each herd increases by 20 per cent every year and doubles in four or five years. These numbers do not include the estimated 100,000 animals within Native American reservations.

Beyond the numbers is the heart-breaking reality — because everyone, really, is a horse-lover at heart. In our area, many of the horse advocates work hard for the horses and do not want to “love them to death.” Some even adopt animals.

Fringe “advocates” have been effective at lobbying against the slaughter of old, unadoptable — or really any — horses. Only 10 states have horse management areas, and most of their congressional representatives want to find a better solution.

It is easy for people in the other 40 states to be swayed by the extremists. Their efforts are responsible for the current situation, in which taxpayers support at least 80,000 excess horses, leaving us with no end in sight, not in numbers, not in funding, not in ecological damage. What is a real-world solution?

Sharon O’Toole is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News, which produced this story. Photo by Luca Setti.


Showing 11 comments
  • JJ

    Not that it changes much of anything, but…are we positive horses weren’t here before the European’s showed up? Newspaper Rock in SW Utah has several horse depictions, and has been dated to pre-Columbian times.

    • G.G.S.

      Possible there were native horses that largely died of or interbred with ones brought in later. Fossils and DNA solved a lot of the question.

      It’s debatable if it matters they are native or not they are and have been living there for a while.

  • tony

    good grief . . . the madness never ends. I remember this debate in the 80’s when i was in college. I wish for anyone who supports these vermin, land maggots to go see the extreme devastation they cause. Unlike cattle, they will eat to the bottom sides of the rocks and leave nothing, i mean nothing in their wake. . . Rid the West of these environmental pirates. And I’ve been a horse owner and made my living from livestock for many years. . .

  • Jini Patel Thompson

    Perhaps the most tragic part of this story are the mustangs held in BLM corrals. It is one thing to take a domestic-born equine and cage it, but quite another to take a wild-born horse and pen it up.

    Another issue is that there is NO humane slaughter for horses. The cattle slaughter procedure devised by Temple Grandin doesn’t work for horses – and there is no other.

    Thirdly, why is adoption so difficult and costly? There are many of us up here in Canada who would adopt – but even those of us who live 5 minutes from the border are legally denied the opportunity. Surely that is one actionable point that could be changed fairly quickly and ease the financial burden. And why not?? I understand they want to prevent kill buyers from purchasing mustangs, but that is not so difficult to do – a simple quota (e.g. no more than 2 horses to any buyer) would go a long way to preventing that.

    • G.G.S.

      Not allowed to adopt because of meat industry buys horse meat and pretends it’t other kinds of meat. No slaughter of horses allowed in US but in Mexico or Canada there is. Even with not allowing adoption they sometimes sadly end up shipped there for that purpose. There are straw purchasers for guns I’m sure they’d do the same with horses. Follow up would just cost more $.

  • Nicole

    The annual budget for BLM is $1 Billion per year, not $80 million. That is a HUGE error in this article.

  • Jini Patel Thompson

    AND here’s how Four Paws International is helping to manage the wild horses in Romania – and how come they have a contraceptive vaccine for mares that works for 3-4 years?


    Perhaps the BLM should consult/brainstorm solutions with them?

  • G.G.S.

    Interesting it mentions horses on Native American land and not how they are “managed” there.

    It’s definitely a complicated issue. As for overpopulation/starving is a thing that happens in many if not every species that is more prone to quantity strategy of continuing to some degree. Sure they might get disease such as horse encephalitis but so do cattle or sheep or say deer/ungulate populations. I’d compare horses to deer expect think problem that nothing much kills them but they have possibly a longer life span.

    I’d rather subsidized wild/feral horses than UGG rug and methane pollution farmers. As far as economically it mostly goes to sustain itself not a community as it’s prone to boom and bust years.

  • Lisa Rutledge

    “The curator of vertebrates at the prestigious American Museum of Natural History, Professor Ross MacPhee, makes no bones about the fact that wild horses are a native species in America. And in a transcribed lecture lambastes the BLM for promulgating lies about the origins and native status of American wild horses.”
    -William Simpson

  • Lisa Rutledge

    The fossil record is clear. Horses evolved on this continent and thrived for thousands of years. Humans hunted them to near extinction, except for small numbers who traveled over the Bering Land Bridge to Asia. There, they were eventually tamed and domesticated by Monguls and the horse helped mankind expand empires. Yes, they returned with the Spanish, but this is their homeland. Stop calling them feral.

    Since the passage of the WFRHBA in 1971, land legally designated to the mustang,”…principally, though not exclusively”… for its use has been reduced by more than 20 million acres.

    It’s not the fault of the horses that the BLM has mismanaged them for decades. There are not too many horses. There are too many fences.

    Solutions: Give them back those 20 million acres. Replicate the Canyon City correctional center, where some 3,000 head are trained for adoption. Get rid of adoption fees so that it is easier, not financially difficult for them to be adopted. Allow international adoption. Spain is desperate for wild horses – not for slaughter but for their re-wilding program. Give PZP an honest effort. In Colorado’s 3 HMA’s, the fertility control measure has been successful. In fact, the Spring Creek Basin HMA has not had a helicopter roundup since 2011.

  • Angie Anderson

    This article is so full of inaccuracies its hard to know where to start. First off, it must be mentioned that this O’Toole person is a rancher…..so right off this is going to be an overly biased piece. Ranchers on public lands rely on millions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies, These federal grazing subsidies give ranchers such as O’Toole political and environmental power that these ranchers exploit…but the media never mentions it, and ranchers don’t bring it up either. These same livestock ranchers are allowed to represent themselves as “stewards” of the over 200 million acres of grassland that have been clearly compromised….and compromised by the millions of heads of cattle and sheep being allowed to run rampant. First off, it is a fact that cattle outnumber wild horses by over 50 to 1. When arguing that wild horses are doing the damage to grazing lands, the BLM completely ignores the millions of heads of livestock being allowed to graze on these same public lands. They don’t even factor them into the equation. The BLM gives livestock ranchers priority, and uses the wild horses as a convenient scapegoat to blame for range degradation. There IS no wild horse overpopulation, as the BLM and ranchers like O’Toole keep pushing. There are in fact 16,300 wild horses compared to 1 million head of livestock on public lands, and 155 million acres are allocated for livestock grazing, whereas wild horses are allocated a mere 26.9 percent…and this shared with livestock. But of course the media will not report anything against big Ag business….they are owned and influenced by these businesses. The paper, and it’s writer, obviously falls into that category. It’s a shame. Oh…and the National Wild Horses and Burro Summit was bought and attended by the same biased folks. When wild horse advocate groups asked to attend, they were roundly turned down. O’Toole needs to get her facts straight before writing any more of her wildly slanted pieces.

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