The Plight of the American Wild Horse


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Wild horse. Red Desert, Wyoming (Photo credit: Randy C. Bunney)

This wild horse is grazing in the Red Desert of Wyoming. Image by Randy C. Bunney; Great Circle Photographics.

Last November, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conducted the most recent helicopter round-up of wild horses in Wyoming’s Salt Wells Creek Herd Management Area. This time, a total of 668 animals were captured. Of these, 79 horses were released back into the wild, but 3 horses died and 586 were permanently removed from the range. In the end, there were just 251 horses left behind on 1.2 million acres of land, of which 725,000 acres is public land managed by the BLM.

Wild Horse Roundup: To Appease Ranchers?

The roundup stampeded wild horses for miles over rugged terrain in extreme winter weather conditions,” director Suzanne Roy, from the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign (AWHPC) told Decoded Science. “Wild horses live in closely-knit family groups, which were shattered as a result.” Describing conditions in the holding facilities at Rock Springs, WY and Gunnison Prison in Utah, witness accounts also paint a bleak picture of these wild animals maintained in pens with no shelter and exposed to the full force of the elements.

Suzanne Roy says, “the roundup was conducted specifically to appease ranchers who graze their livestock on the public lands where wild horses live. The ranchers view wild horses as competition for cheap, tax-subsidized grazing on BLM lands.

Ecologist Dr Madan Oli, author of A critical crossroad for BLM’s wild horse program, offers a somewhat more understanding view, saying, “The BLM is faced with a very difficult task of managing wild horses in multiple-use public lands involving organizations and people with very different (and often contradictory) interests and agendas. It is therefore understandable that BLM’s policies and practices are not going to be equally acceptable to all parties.”

Wild Animals Forced to Revert Back to Captivity

In 1971, President Nixon signed the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which declared that “wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West and they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people.” The act stated that the population of wild horses needs to be monitored “to preserve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance.”

However, captured animals “do not live the life of wild horses as seen in the public land,”said Dr Oli. Instead, after the round-ups, animals are forced to revert back to the status of captive livestock. The AWHPC believes most horses will languish in these holding facilities, where presently 50,000 wild horses are stockpiled from previous round-ups. Only about 2000 of those are sold or adopted each year, making this a long-term option for most of these animals.

There is a real possibility that those horses could be sold for slaughter,” said Suzanne Roy. “We have always maintained that the endgame of BLM’s unsustainable roundup/remove/stockpile approach to wild horse management was slaughter….to stockpile so many wild horses in holding that the “only” solution would be to slaughter them.

Captive Horses: Costly System

Not surprisingly, in addition to the stress imposed on these animals, these policies have resulted in a complex and costly system for maintaining captive horses. Dr Oli estimates the cost is over $1000/horse per year, and may exceed $1 billion in total by 2030. “These are staggering numbers and it’s unclear if the Congress will pay for these escalating costs,” he added.

Wild Horse Management Program: Unsustainable

Based on these facts, Dr Oli’s conclusion is an obvious one. “As currently practiced, BLM’s wild horse management program is simply not sustainable. Even to maintain the current wild population size, BLM must continue to remove 15-20% of the wild population, and that cost, combined with cost of maintaining horses in captivity, will likely exceed their total budget.

The program has now reached a breaking point and the direction which will take is unknown. At the moment, the National Research Council (NRC) has laid out a clear path for reform using humane fertility control as an alternative to the roundups. This can be fully backed-up by scientific research showing the use of effective contraceptive agents in feral horses for up to 3 years. This proposal has the full support of the AWHPC, but the BLM remains resistant to implementing these simple and cost-effective reforms.

The situation in Wyoming makes clear the fact that the BLM is managing our public lands, not for the public, but for the cattlemen who enjoy rock bottom grazing rates, thanks to our tax subsidies. The agency consistently places livestock interests ahead of the public interest, which clearly favours protecting wild horses and conserving our public lands for future generations,” said Suzanne Roy.

Wild Horses: What Does the Future Hold?

When asked about what the AWHPC intends to do, Suzanne Roy is clear: “We intend to keep up the fight to defend Wyoming’s wild horses in federal court.” The group has already successfully stopped BLM from converting the wild free roaming horse population in the White Mountain to a non-reproducing herd. “We are committed to ensuring that the public’s will – and the public law that was passed to protect wild horses and burros on public lands in the West – are upheld.

Undoubtedly, wild horses strike a deep chord with the American public. “The West was built on the backs of the ancestors of today’s mustangs. They are national icons,” said Suzanne Roy. “What does it say about us as a country that it’s acceptable for the federal government to choose the most violent and destructive method to control an animal that represents the freedom and untamed beauty that makes America great?

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