They should shoot horses, shouldn't they?

  • Ted Williams


Our national obsession with keeping "wild" horses and burros on public lands that are incapable of supporting them has always struck me as bizarre, especially since it’s the result of our alleged love for them. Ask most any wild horse advocacy group and you’ll be told that wild horses are native wildlife and anyone who wants them off the public land is fronting for the cattle industry.

It’s true that cattle do more damage than free-ranging horses or burros — because there are more of them. But one horse does far more damage than one cow. And though it’s true that a form of horse evolved in North America, it went extinct along with other ice-age megafauna, such as the woolly mammoth. Arguing that the modern horses unleashed by the conquistadores are "native" to the continent because their progenitors were here 10,000 years ago is as absurd as arguing that elephants are native, too, because their progenitors were also here 10,000 years ago.

Unlike native ungulates, and even unlike cattle, horses and burros have meshing incisors and solid hoofs. The native vegetation of the arid West has evolved no defense against them; the animals extinguish the plants, and then starve. Montana writer Judy Blunt describes what happens next in the New York Times of Jan. 4, 2005: "A cloud hangs over the Nevada landscape, caused by 500 half-starved horses pounding the high desert to powder, looking for food, stamping any remaining waterholes into dust. The foals are long dead, left behind as they weakened. Cowboys under contract with the BLM set out to gather the horses and move them, but a phone call redirects them to a worse situation in another area."

In 1972, responding to a letter-writing campaign by passionate but ecologically illiterate horse lovers, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, which placed all unrestrained, unclaimed horses and burros under government care and made it a felony to kill, capture, sell or harass one. This law compels the departments of Agriculture and Interior to manage feral horses and burros in such a way as "to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands."

This sounds good, but the mission is impossible. First, the Bureau of Land Management doesn’t begin to have the capacity to manage feral horses and burros. Second, horses and burros are aliens and therefore simply can’t exist anywhere in North America in "natural ecological balance." The Interior Department spends almost $40 million annually to keep horses on perpetual welfare. In contrast, it invests just $74,472 trying to keep the average threatened or endangered species in existence.

The removal-and-adoption program, run by the BLM, doesn’t come close to dealing with the problem. "It’s frustrating to see them spend money in areas that can’t maintain viable horse populations," says Nevada Department of Wildlife habitat bureau chief Dave Pulliam. "We see places where BLM has established a management goal of 15 or 20 horses when their own science indicates that 100 is the threshold for viability. So why aren’t they zeroing out these herds? Sensitive desert species like bighorns, desert tortoises and Gila monsters can’t tolerate horses. And horses will stand over a spring and run off other animals."

"Horses and burros do incredible damage," says Erick Campbell, a biologist who retired from the BLM in 2005. Campbell frequently dealt with wild horse issues during his 30-year career. "When the grass between the shrubs is gone, a cow is out of luck, but a horse or burro will stomp that plant to death to get that one last blade. When cows run out of forage, the cowboys move them or take them home, but horses and burros are out there all year. They’re not fenced; they can go anywhere. BLM exacerbates the problem by hauling water to them."

The Humane Society of the United States is trying to develop practical contraceptives deliverable in the field, but the more radical horse-lovers oppose all control — even this. In 2005, the Colorado Wild Horse and Burro Coalition and the Cloud Foundation (named after a feral horse named Cloud) tried unsuccessfully to stop the BLM from experimenting with chemical contraception in Montana’s Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range.

"BLM has used this herd as a science experiment," says Cloud Foundation director Ginger Kathrens. "It’s a situation that can be managed by nature, but they (federal agents) don’t value natural systems." When I asked her how imported horses and burros could be considered natural, she said: "Wild horses are native to North America."


Ted Williams writes the Incite column for Audubon magazine and lives in Grafton, Massachusetts.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Dec 13, 2006 11:07 AM

Ted, I think you're spot-on, but we're probably not going to get anything done.

 After all, our same government feeds hay to elk in Jackson Hole every winter.

Dec 18, 2006 12:55 PM

My wife and I are horsepeople. Having recently adopted a wild mustang foal and presently living in No. Nevada where wild horses still roam, Ted Williams' comments are needlessly provocative and patently offensive. Sadly, his remarks are indicative of the zero-sum mentality of many self-styled environmentalists who speak from a conviction that only their cause or species is ascendant and worthy of merit.

Unfortunately, such a divisive dichotomy too often occurs. It is evident whether or not the subject is one's preferential value for desert tortoises over wild horses or when various trail users gather and opine from their stakeholds, e.g., the hikers who don't like the equine trail users or the mountain bikers who don't like the ATV-ers.

In his essay, Williams offers no facts. Instead, he merely quotes harried former BLM employees and a NY Times article to buttress his specious arguments.[From our own first hand experiences in Nevada, the BLM is hardly a credible agency, having consistently done a terrible job managing the wild horse and burro population. Perhaps, this is an area where common agreement can yet be found with Ted Williams.]

Moreover, speaking from the his presumably well informed New England Adubon landscape known perhaps somewhere for the wild horses of which he blithely opines, the kernel of his argument is his repeatedly taking issue with the well-intentioned albeit erroneous declarations from wild horse advocates that "horses are native to North America." Inasmuch as there are few things truly native, including ourselves to this continent, I struggle to find the point of his polemic. Pray tell, the wild horses are now here and have been here for lo hundreds of years. The fact that they may or may not have primordial antecedents, matters how?

A more constructive dialogue should involve identifying ways for the various species to coexist rather than calling for the killing of one species in preference over another. Such chauvinistic species bashing fails to advance solutions.

Lastly, a better informed and more comprehensive analysis would also involve the federal government's longstanding welfare programs to ranchers, loggers, and farmers.  The obscene amounts of money spent on these subsidy programs, at ridiculous taxpayer expense, makes those monies spent on wild horses let along endangered species, pale by comparison. 

- Mauricio R. Hernandez

Gardnerville, Nevada 

Dec 27, 2006 02:40 PM


After I parked my big rig at a small truck stop in SE Idaho, and was walking my canine companion, "Satchi", I noticed in a field across the road, several horses.  Being the animal and nature lover I am, we walked over to greet the horses and give them some handfulls of green grass, as their own large pasture was pitifully overgrazed. I then saw that most of the horses were "white eyed" and generally in miserable condition.  Even their temperment was melancholy.  I surmised them to be mustangs, probably awaiting shipment to Europe as horse meat.  The largest of the horses was a Clydesdale and as he listened to my admiring murmurings about how handsome and huge he was, he struck a pose as if to show and tell me that he was still proud and would be more than willing to work hard for me if I could somehow manage to acquire him and give him a loving home.  My heart broke.  My only home was in the sleeper of the truck I drove and obviously there wasn't much room in there for him.     

When we take away the freedom of another living being, then we are duty bound to maintain them to the best of our ability.  As we all live in our small, frightened worlds, and go to our small boring jobs, let us give some thought to the other beings in this world who could enlarge our own existences, if we were but able to include them in our lives.  I am ashamed to think that I go about my life as others are led off to die.  It seems as though somehow we have gotten everything mixed up.  Why are we throwing everything we love out the window, and then asking ourselves why our lives are so dismal?   I am beginning to hate Europe, if for no other reason than this.