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.