We need a solution to too many wild horses

  • Jodi Peterson


As a kid growing up in Colorado, I was crazy about wild horses. I read books about mustangs and drew pictures of them. In school, I was thrilled to learn about the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, which was passed in 1971, after "Wild Horse Annie" saw bleeding mustangs being hauled off to slaughter and began a campaign to protect them.

But as I got older, I realized that there was more to the story -- a lot more. The Wild Horse Act had noble intentions, but it put our public-land agencies in a near-impossible position. It charged them with protecting wild free-roaming horses and burros “from capture, branding, harassment, or death,” and said that the animals “are to be considered in the area where presently found as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands." In other words, if they're already in an area, they have the right to remain, whether or not the landscape can support them.

In the 40 years since the Act passed, it's become clear that its goal of creating self-sustaining populations of healthy animals has come up against the complex reality of the public lands. Like it or not, federal lands are managed under a multiple-use mandate that requires the balancing of wildlife and livestock, recreation and mineral extraction. Spending nearly $120 million next year just to manage mustangs and burros is hard to justify when the average threatened or endangered species gets just $74,472 per year, according to the conservation writer Ted Williams.

Although this point is often argued, many experts believe that wild horses and burros aren't even native to the West. Horses evolved on this continent, then became extinct roughly 12,000 years ago; wild burros originated in North Africa. Many scientists and conservation groups consider today's mustangs feral descendants of the domestic horses first brought from Europe in the 16th century. As Steve Torbit, regional executive director for the National Wildlife Federation's Rocky Mountain office, put it in the Arizona Republic: "From an ecological point of view, they don't belong here. In many ways, they're like an exotic weed."

These feral horses are creating a burden on public lands that are already over-used and exploited: The livestock industry gets federally subsidized grazing; the mining industry extracts billions of dollars in minerals while paying a tiny fraction of its profit in royalties. The damage that some 37,000 horses do may seem minor in comparison, but it's damage nonetheless. Even in cattle-free areas, horses have been documented trampling springs and gnawing grass to dirt. Their presence also contributes to harmful impacts on dozens of species of truly native wildlife, from sage grouse to pronghorn to Lahontan trout. The pressures on public land may be many and reforms are certainly needed, but practically speaking, feral horses are a problem more easily controlled than others.

Meanwhile, the number of wild horses grows by 15 to 20 percent per year, meaning that their population doubles every four years. The only way that the Bureau of Land Management can legally keep horse numbers down is to round up excessive horses and remove them from public land. But not enough adoptive homes can be found for those horses; demand has dropped to 3,500 per year, from 5,700 in 2005. The agency ends up holding mustangs in corrals and pastures for years at a time, splitting up family groups and spreading disease.

Is there a solution? Interior Secretary Ken Salazar proposes to house some 25,000 animals in preserves in the East and Midwest, funded by $96 million in government dollars and through partnerships with nonprofits. Salazar also wants to sterilize thousands of horses, although cost-effective birth control is not yet available.

The idea of thinning the herds in the way we manage other big herbivores -- with a public hunting season -- is abhorrent to most Americans. A 2005 bill allows mustangs to be sent to slaughter if they're more than 10 years old or have been passed over for adoption three times, but since there are no longer any horse slaughterhouses in the United States, the animals are forced to undergo long treks to Mexico and Canada. Predators would help, of course, but the sabre-toothed tigers, dire wolves and short-faced bears that once kept horse numbers in check died out when their prey did. Modern-day wolf packs can take horses, but mountain lions just aren't big enough to do the job.

So no easy answers exist, only the uncomfortable reality that we cannot afford to be anything other than practical. As Veronica Egan, executive director of Great Old Broads for Wilderness, puts it, "The time for public support of expensive lifestyles in the name of romantic historical myths is over."

Jodi Peterson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is the managing editor of the magazine in Paonia, Colorado.

Anonymous says:
Jul 02, 2010 12:17 PM
First, horses originated here and became almost extinct 5,700 years ago, not 12,000. Your information is very outdated. Two separate DNA studies appearing in peer reviewed journals prove that the horse what almost became extinct here - much later than the previously believed date - were Equus caballus, the exact same species that the Spaniards reintroduced to their homeland in the 1500s.

They lived here for almost 500 years, in perfect harmony with land and other wildlife, until the white man showed up with his millions cattle. The Center for Bio-Diversity isn't suing over wild horse overgrazing!

The BLM wants to 0 out the Twin Peaks horses, when there are only about 300 horses there now - according to independent observers - and over 3,000 cattle. This on a range where the LAW mandates the horses to be the "principal" species.

The solution is simple: Obey the law. If there are too many cattle, get them off tax payer subsidized public land!
Anonymous says:
Jul 14, 2010 04:45 PM
well, 5000 years ago there were still plenty of wolves hunting them, not to mention humans. I don't think horses are particularly 'invasive' compared to say, cheatgrass, but the fact is without natural predators they will keep reproducing until they use up all the food, then many of them will starve slowly.
Anonymous says:
Jul 02, 2010 12:52 PM
"The time for public support of expensive lifestyles in the name of romantic historical myths is over."

You must be referring to public land ranching, which only survives thanks to subsidies from the American taxpayer and which, by the way, is the main reason wild horses are removed from the range, again, at taxpayers' expense. I agree, the time to support that expensive lifestyle is over.
Anonymous says:
Jul 02, 2010 06:05 PM
As a taxpayer I would rather spend 120 million a year (author's number) on wild horse management on the range, than subsidize hobby cattle ranchers at a tune of 'a hell of alot more' than that for annual loss, & expense of periphery services and degradation that cattle do to public land. The author needs to do alot more research into the real story. Public isn't falling for this 'too many wild horses' line- no evidence. Horses are in the way of business making a buck on our precious resources. The 2005 bill referenced by the uneducated author was done as a secret rider to an unread, unrelated bill added in the middle of the night on eve of holiday break-only noticed & reported by govt printers- that is an important ommission by author. Time to do what the people want, mandated by Congress-manage wild horses on the range, leave them alone. End cattle grazing on public lands.
Anonymous says:
Jul 03, 2010 10:01 PM
Here's the shocker on this story..or maybe not, its just another poorly researched piece by a journalist who should know better. And there is a story here - albiet not one popular with the ranching community - there are too many animals on the range, but they moo, not whinny.
Anonymous says:
Jul 04, 2010 10:25 AM
Jodi Peterson has written a sensible and intelligent piece on the management of horses and burros. I am a horse lover and dig burros too. Both are domestic animals, feral in North America. Neither is native to the late Holocene North America in which we find ourselves. Huge numbers of feral horses and burros live an increasingly miserable existence on western US lands, and they increase the deprivation of native wild species on the public lands where they have become more and more crowded. Dense crowded populations of feral animals (burros, horses, cats, dogs) live a miserable existence, and animal lovers should favor polices that lead to humane conditions for these animals. There is no succor for horses or burros in quixotic rhetoric against US cattle polices (as horrid as these polices are). There is no logical, ethical, or moral basis in opposing sustainable animal and environmental policy with denunciations of our idiotic cattle grazing policies.
Anonymous says:
Jul 04, 2010 10:14 PM
You need to do your homework! The only thing you're correct about is how idiotic our cattle grazing policies are. The rest....

The entire Equus species originated in North America. Sometime after the end of the Ice Age, about 5,700 years ago, they became virtually extinct here only to be reintroduced by the Spanish in the 1500s. The species that died out and the reintroduced species are one and the same: Equus caballus. Very SAME species. DNA does NOT lie. And they got along just fine with the other native flora and fauna for almost 500 years before the white man came along with his cattle and took over their ranges. Cattle are certainly not native and are very poorly adapted to a desert environment. They are doing a great deal of damage especially since they outnumber the horses by at least 20-1.

There are NOT great numbers of horses and even less burros. There might be 20,000 still surviving in the wild. And they are NOT starving. Just look at the pictures of the Calico horses. They are FAT, and even one of the BLM guys said they were in almost perfect condition. Some mares were thin, but it was the dead of winter AND they had foals at side. Of course they get thin under those circumstances, but they would have been just fine if the BLM hadn't killed them.
Anonymous says:
Jul 04, 2010 02:19 PM
Get educated please: It's the FERAL cattle and sheep causing the problems. Corporate 'Welfare Ranchers' cost the American tax-payers to the tune of $500,000,000 a year on subsidies when only 3% of their beef goes into our food supply - the other 97% is exported to other countries. So fact is, were're paying for meat we aren't even getting.

Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West

Waste of the West: Public Lands Ranching

Let these coorporate welfare ranchers that are paying a measly $1.43 per calf/cow per month find their own land and pay their own way and get off OUR PUBLIC land.
Anonymous says:
Jul 05, 2010 01:32 AM
Wild mustangs don't need the Bureau of Land Management or anyone else to manage them. If you've ever watched them, they move around the hills and over plains in families without regard to humans. Just leave them alone!
Anonymous says:
Jul 11, 2010 10:56 AM
Leave them alone to double their numbers every 4-5 years? How is that responsible management of our common range land?
Anonymous says:
Jul 05, 2010 03:01 PM
Its those 8 MILLION WELFARE CATTLE that are a problem . The owners of those cattle need to put them on their own land and stop wrecking Our public lands . They also need to be charged for wrecking our public lands and prosecuted for their destruction of our lands, water and wildlife and murdering our wild horses.
Anonymous says:
Jul 05, 2010 04:06 PM
More falsehoods being perpetuated to an unknowing public. I wonder if Ms.Peterson just happens to be a cattle rancher in CO...hummm home of Ken Salazar. The wild horses "managed" quite well without the BLM all of these years..get rid of so many cattle and the greed of the ranchers and the horses and the West will be just fine..
Anonymous says:
Jul 05, 2010 08:58 PM
It makes me very sad to see poorly researched articles like this. Why are the horses being blamed for the damage to our public lands when they use so very little of it?
Anonymous says:
Jul 06, 2010 07:20 AM
Wow! A little emotion here. Did anybody even READ the article? Well, here in western Colorado I've started a government susidized captive breeding program mating wild horse with cattle. Works great! I ride 'em for a couple years, then I eat 'em. They're great for both roping and then burgers. Plus, I get to piss off everybody!
Anonymous says:
Jul 06, 2010 08:43 AM
READ THIS, it is another REAL reason the horses are being eliminated.

Anonymous says:
Jul 06, 2010 01:32 PM
Oh, and you forgot to mention that the earth is flat and the moon landing was a hoax. Actually, wild horses, not humans, landed on the moon, where they were hitherto before extinct.
Anonymous says:
Jul 06, 2010 04:16 PM
Here is a flyover done by a private citizen an wildlife ecologist, who only spotted 310 Wild Horses, where the BLM says they are going to round up over 1400.


Anonymous says:
Jul 07, 2010 09:32 AM
I apologize for getting slightly off-topic, but does anyone know of any collaborative, cooperative efforts involving all stakeholders to work on solutions to this problem? Based on all of the reading I've done all over the internet, it would seem that people prefer to just make lots of noise and demonize each other (especially the government) without actually working on constructive solutions. I would love to give some support to a cooperative effort such as this: www.returntofreedom.org/pdf/OVERVIEW_06_02_10_.pdf .
Anonymous says:
Jul 12, 2010 12:45 PM
I agree that the budget for wild horses and burros is too much. Cutting out the cost of the roundups, the "processing" and feeding of captive horses, and the absurd idea of shipping them out east, after purchasing more land would be a great start to saving us money. Natural predators can do the job of population control nicely. Since when can't some coyotes or bears or wolves take down little foals or yearlings? Gee, tell the BLM to stop predator removal and that would save some $$$ too. Now what about the fact that the subsidized cattle on public lands far out number the remaining wild horses (estimated at 200-1)? And the Government (aka we taxpayers) loses money on that big time! You seem to have the wrong emphasis putting most of the blame back on the horses. Get the Government/BLM out of the job of managing the wild horses, stop the prolific waste of grazing permits, and let nature take back over some of the land dedicated to the wild horses and burros and the budget reductions can be enormous.
Anonymous says:
Jul 23, 2010 11:11 AM
Our historical problem with land management in the west is that we have viewed each species involved, be they plant or animal, as a separate entity.

The truth of the matter is that there are not too many wild horses, there is too little land allocated for movement and roaming, too little support given for predators, too many roads, too many fences, not enough native grasses (thanks to mismanagement of land types in general, sheep and cows - not horses) not enough prairie dogs, too much abuse of habitat through individual ownership, and also too much abuse of the "commons."

This story just taps back into the same-old, same-old, misfired thinking about animals and range land habitat. "Oh yes, It's the fault of such and such (individual) species."

Yeah? Really?

The only individual species I can think of to blame for range land habitat loss, destruction and distress is named Homo Sapiens - not Horse.
Anonymous says:
Jul 31, 2010 10:18 AM
There is only one remaining significant herd left in Colorado Ms. Peterson. What, are they getting the way of those hikes of yours over on the West Slope? Wild horses are a part of our western heritage, what's next, ranches too? And truthfully, what will it make room for...let's be honest here...more unfettered urban sprawl and poorly planned energy development on government lands for a fraction of what they are worth. What exactly do you think Salazar will do with BLM lands that become available once wild horse herds are removed...restore and conserve for future generations...not hardly.

Your OpEd is pure stupidity!
Anonymous says:
Aug 02, 2010 01:45 PM
What do you count as a significant herd? There are three in Colorado, not counting East Douglas:

Little Bookcliffs, Grand Junction Field Office
Spring Creek, Mancos/Dolores Field Office
Sandwash, Little Snake Field Office
Red Binkley
Red Binkley says:
May 06, 2013 12:28 AM
"Mountain lions just aren't big enough to do the job." It must be so nice not having to bother with researching your articles. Otherwise Ms. Peterson would have come across this study, published by John W. Turner, Jr. and Michael L. Morrison: www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3672527?uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21101987474183
The authors clearly state in the abstract of their study that "Increased [mustang] foal survival during the latter part of our study...was apparently related to a substantial decrease in the number of lions." Oops.

As Mark Twain said, "Get your facts first, and then you may distort them as much as you please."
Jodi Peterson
Jodi Peterson says:
May 06, 2013 09:25 AM
Thanks for the comment Red. You may not have noticed that the context of the sentence about predation was "horses", as in full-grown, not "foals." Sincerely, Jodi Peterson, Managing Editor
Richard Boyden
Richard Boyden says:
May 07, 2013 07:00 PM
I really agree that beef cattle shouldn't be on public lands which are meant for wildlife. But then this is easy for me because I am vegetarian. Besides, just because winters are so cold in Michigan that the people there have so little to do, does this mean the whole country has to drive automobiles? Why we can't use horses for transportation? This will solve everything!
T Hinks
T Hinks says:
Feb 22, 2015 07:30 PM
I would like to note that the above statement that mountain lions do not kill adult horses is incorrect. Turner and Morrison (2001) state on pages 186-187 that "in addition to foals, 3 adult horses were found killed by lions: a 2-, 3-, and 4-year-old in 1991, 1992, and 1993, respectively."

Please consider reviewing the article: John W. Turner, Jr. and Michael L. Morrison. 2001. Influence of Predation by Mountain Lions on Numbers and Survivorship of a Feral Horse Population. The Southwestern Naturalist Vol. 46, No. 2, pp. 183-190.