WILD HORSES IN THE 21st CENTURY
Today's wild horse management issues are extremely complex. If you are looking for simplistic answers, you will not find them here. The best thing you can do is to continually educate yourself and make your own decisions. Talk to people. Talk to BLM personnel, ranchers, wild horse advocates, recreationists, hunters & fishermen, campers, bikers, field biologists, and wild horse adopters. Go visit the range yourself if you can and see for yourself what it's like. If you are lucky, you may get to watch a band of wild horses or burros as they go about their daily lives. Read from multiple sources, not just the passionately worded campaign that arrives in the email.
The high reproductive rate of wild horses presents a major challenge to wild horse management, in part because a large segment of the politically-active population doesn't believe it. Since effective on-the-range fertility control remains elusive for a variety of reasons, gathering remains BLM's main management tool. But this has resulted in a large buildup of horses in holding facilities, the care of which uses up most of BLM's meager budget. As the public has become more aware of gathers, considerable public protest has developed, as modern-day animal lovers find the process hard to handle. Congress and anti-wild horse lobbies are starting to object to the costs of maintaining captured horses in holding facilities. We are starting to see lawsuits filed by anti-wild horse groups to force BLM to remove more horses and burros, even as the budget is tighter than ever.
Many advocates do not agree that population growth is a problem, believing that if allowed the chance, wild horse populations would "self-regulate." The National Academy of Science in a sense agrees, saying that if there are more horses in an area than the land can support, the horses will weaken and die off. This die-off would be accompanied by a similar decline in other wildlife and degradation to the environment. The NAS questions whether this would be a price that we would be willing to pay. Others simply don't believe the figures and insist that the land could support more horses than it currently does. Others focus on pointing out the damages done by competing uses, such as livestock and energy extraction.
So we find ourselves today, watching two primary forces among wild horse advocates: Those who want active on-the-range management and those who don't. Many believe that the best policy forward would be implementing widespread fertility control on the range, using drugs such as PZP or GonaCon, and spaying older mares who have already contributed to the herd's gene pool. Other call this "managing for extinction." They believe that removals are the primary problem, that wild horses are disappearing, and that the best policy is to allow them to run free with no human interference. There are also advocates for "letting nature take its course" - folks who believe it is better for a horse to die of thirst and starvation than to lose its freedom.
Among non-advocates, we see campaigns to to re-open horse slaughter plants in the US and to send excess wild horses to them, or to sell excess wild horses to zoos and similar facilities, for feeding to zoo animals (this would circumvent the need for slaughterhouses for human consumption).
Protracted drought in the Great Basin areas, very limited funding for adoption programs, renewed "Sagebrush Rebellion" forces wanting to get rid of wild horses and the BLM program, increasing urbanization with changing demographics (less interest in horses and less ability to own one) are other critical challenges to the viability of the wild horse program today.
WHAT ARE WILD HORSES AND WHAT IS THEIR VALUE?
Today's wild horses are descendants - in some cases after 100 generations or more, of domestic horses brought to North America by Europeans beginning in 1493. These long-ago domestics were descendants of native North American-evolved horses who crossed over into Asia during the prehistoric days of Beringea. Some say this qualifies horses as being a native species. Others find this too big a stretch.
WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?
What makes Mustangs special is their history and their wildness. Nothing matches the thrill of chancing upon a band of mustangs or burros in the wild. They are a Heritage Animal, deserving of protection, and management both within their environment as well as in captivity.
It is interesting that BLM receives the most bad publicity and the most criticism in its management of wild horses. Many other agencies have jurisdiction over groups of wild horses. In the case of reservation horses, their numbers dwarf the entire BLM system. BLM is currently the only agency dealing with wild horses who currently both manages wild populations and supports and protects the horses who are removed from the wild. Indian reservations, the National Park Service, the Sheldon USFWS preserve, and The Nevada Department of Agriculture all just catch and sell, with only sporadic and variably-supervised attempts to prevent the horses from being slaughtered. Some agencies openly and directly sell to slaughter buyers. It is not the intent of this website to be political, only to present information as accurately as possible. This is accurate.
Wild Horse & Burro Protection and Management & Preservation efforts in recent times have collided headlong with a difficult mix of circumstances:
Today BLM-managed wild horse herds are found in California, Eastern Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and one small area of Montana.
Wild horses and burros exist elsewhere, too, throughout the country, but are not managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The area around Reno and Carson City, Nevada, are mostly not managed by BLM and have no legal protections, but are in prime wild horse country. (These are called "Comstock" or "Virginia Range" horses)
Wild horses and burros can be found on private, County, US Fish & Wildlife, Indian Reservation, State Park and even one or two National Park lands. Reservation horses are not necessarily true "Mustangs" but they are often as unhandled as any, and their sheer numbers are gaining national notice.
The buildup of gathered wild horses in holding facilities and the restrictions of the BLM budget to perform on-the-range management or to promote adoptions, combined with all the forces listed above, would seem to be creating a Perfect Storm for disaster unless something changes. It is up to each of us, as individuals and as groups, to work to understand the issues and to help develop humane and effective solutions.
It is easy to feel very alarmist at the current situation. And yet, going back and reading through the history of the wild horse movement, nothing much has really changed. The same forces are still duking out in much the same way they always have.
Today’s wild horses are a true American Melting Pot of horses, and with the help of Natural Selection, they are intelligent, sound-minded, sure-footed, and strong. Mustangs normally have excellent feet that often do not require shoes, and strong, hardy constitutions. Having had the benefit of life within a functional natural social unit, they are well-socialized and savvy. Time will tell how it plays out into the future. Will there be wild herds for our grandchildren to enjoy?
Return to America
Return to the Wild
Mid-1800's to 1970
The Creation of the BLM Wild Horse & Burro
Program Wild Horses & Burros in
the 21st Century