Wild horses aren’t overrunning the West

A Trump administration proposal sets wild horse populations at extinction levels.

 

Ellie Phipps Price is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She is president of the American Wild Horse Campaign and owner of Durell Vineyards in California and the 2,000-acre Montgomery Creek Ranch, a Northern California refuge for 240 wild horses.


Most Americans want to preserve wild horses on the Western range. Their independence and unbridled freedom symbolize the qualities that make our country great. But their future in 10 Western states is in jeopardy, thanks to a Trump administration proposal to reduce wild populations to extinction levels by killing as many as 90,000 of these iconic animals.

According to a recent poll, it’s a plan that 80 percent of Americans, including 86 percent of Trump voters and 77 percent of Clinton voters, oppose. But will Congress listen? Congress must reconcile the differences in spending legislation created by the Interior Department. The Senate version prohibits killing and slaughter; the House version allows it.

Mass killing of mustangs is certainly not what Congress intended when it unanimously passed the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971, designating these animals as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” to be protected from “harassment, capture, branding and death.”

But what was intended to be a wildlife protection law has been implemented by the agency in charge — the Bureau of Land Management  — as if it’s closer to a pest-control statute that is designed to benefit ranchers who graze livestock on the public lands where wild horses live.

Ranchers who hold federal grazing permits pay $1.87 per animal per month to graze their livestock on public lands. Compare that to the average fee on private lands in the West, which is over $22 per animal per month. It’s a sweet deal for ranchers, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers. BLM policy has long favored this special interest group, even though they represent just 3 percent of American ranchers and produce less than 3 percent of American beef. The path forward to protect wild horses exists, but to get there, we need to deal with some real-world facts. 

Wild horses are released back on the range in Nevada in 2017.
Kyle Hendrix/Bureau of Land Management

Fact #1: BLM’s population limits for wild horses are not “appropriate;”; they’re extinction level. 

The BLM’s “Appropriate” Management Level for wild horses and burros is 26,900 on 27 million acres of BLM land. That’s the number of mustangs that existed in 1971 when Congress unanimously acted to protect them because they were “fast disappearing.” 

In 2013, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the agency’s Appropriate Management Level was “not transparent to stakeholders, supported by scientific information, or amenable to adaptation with new information and environmental and social change.” Yet “getting to Appropriate Management Level” — a goal that is simultaneously unscientific and unattainable — continues to drive the agency’s unsustainable roundup and removal program.

Fact #2: There’s room on the range for wild horses and burros.

Wild horses aren’t overrunning the West. They’re not starving. In fact, they’re not even present on over 80 percent of BLM rangelands grazed by livestock! (Livestock grazing is authorized on 155 million acres of BLM land; wild horses and burros are restricted to 26.9 million, which they share with livestock.)

Privately owned livestock vastly outnumber federally protected wild horses and burros on public lands. In Utah, for example, wild horses graze on just 2.1 million of the 22 million acres of BLM land grazed by livestock. In Nevada, ranchers have two-thirds of federal rangelands to themselves; in Wyoming it’s three-quarters.

Fact #3: Slaughter is not a solution, but birth control is.

Not only is slaughter politically untenable, it also won’t solve the problem. Slaughtering horses requires the BLM to continue rounding them up, which everyone agrees is unsustainable.

Fortunately, a humane alternative is available.  In 2013, the National Academy of Sciences recommended that the BLM use PZP fertility control to manage wild horses on the range. The vaccine is cost-effective, it can be delivered remotely by dart, and it prevents fertilization without affecting the horses’ natural behavior.

Economic modeling shows that the agency could achieve its population goals and save $8 million in just one of 177 habitat areas by using fertility control. Despite this, the agency currently spends zero percent of its budget on birth control, promoting slaughter instead.

It all comes down to this: Will Congress stand with the American people by rejecting the distorted “facts” voiced by a self-interested few? Will Congress force the Bureau of Land Management to pursue a humane and sustainable program, or will it allow the mismanagement to continue? 

The answer may not only determine the future of our wild horses, but also of the very public lands on which they live. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • VERDE RIVER PROJECTS TECHNICIAN
    The Verde River Projects Technician (VRPT) provides technical assistance to Verde River Program staff in implementation of the Verde River Streamflow Monitoring Protocol. This consist...
  • 8 FIELD PROJECT SPECIALISTS (POSITION FORMERLY TITLED TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISOR)
    Are you passionate about environmental conservation and connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with outdoor leadership...
  • SOUTHWEST REWILDING ADVOCATE
    WildEarth Guardians is seeking a full-time advocate in our Wild Places Program to advance a new paradigm of forest management and protection based on the...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org