The ugly truth about the wild horse issue

Pancake area, west of Ely, Nevada - photo: provided by Erik Molvar

Opinion

The Nevada legislature is debating a resolution to fast-track the removal of wild horses from public lands. Once again, the livestock industry is painting wild horses into the role of a convenient scapegoat for land health deterioration. Just like any large herbivore, high concentrations of wild horses can damage the range, but they are rarely permitted to get that numerous. Instead, the bulk of the damage on public lands comes from domestic livestock that massively outnumber the equids. Overheated rhetoric notwithstanding, this debate has never been about healthy lands or the welfare of wildlife. It’s about moving animals that compete with commercial livestock off the range.

The wild horse issue has become a three-ring circus. A public lands extremist ascended to the head of the Bureau of Land Management and proclaimed wild horses “an existential threat.” Leading newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post have published lengthy articles uncritically promoting fake-news industry narratives, without discernible fact-checking. Even the Wildlife Society – an organization supposedly dedicated to the advancement of impartial science – commissioned a propaganda documentary devoid of science and dripping with hyperbole and emotional exaggerations. 

According to published science, there were two to seven million wild horses when the first Euro-American explorers came to the West. The herds roamed alongside bison, elk, pronghorn, and mule deer. White colonization brought ecological disaster within decades. The Indigenous peoples who had lived alongside abundant wildlife from time immemorial were killed or driven to reservations, and every single species of large herbivore was teetering on the brink of extinction. Audubon’s bighorn sheep, once common on the Plains, did disappear forever. It was the dawn of the ranching custom and culture, and it was a bloody beginning.

As white immigrants staked property claims (some of them legal), they strung barbed wire to keep everyone else out, monopolized springs and rivers to control surrounding arid lands, grazed their livestock for free on federal lands, and declared themselves royalty. Wild horses were just another commodity to be exploited for profit, rounded up by “mustangers” and shipped by rail to slaughterhouses. Most ended up in pet food or chicken feed. In 1971, Congress passed the Wild and Free-ranging Horses and Burros Act (“Wild Horse and Burro Act,” for short). This landmark law ended commercial trade and provided that only federal agencies could round up wild horses, set up adoption programs, and forbade the killing of wild mustangs, either on the range or after their capture. The law designated 53 million acres as Herd Management Areas (HMAs) for wild horses, areas where horse numbers are required to be limited to levels compatible with “a thriving natural ecological balance,” supporting “all wildlife species which inhabit such lands, particularly endangered wildlife species.”

The Wild Horse and Burro Act enabled a multi-million-dollar industry that grew up around helicopter-driven roundups, growing in size and profits in the grand tradition of American capitalism. To appease the ranchers and fund the roundup industry, the BLM set allowable wild horse populations at unsustainably low levels, re-set many HMA population targets to zero, and started aggressively taking horses off the range.

This led to public controversy and a long series of lawsuits, with federal agencies regularly on the losing end. The agencies ultimately decided to try brokering consensus through a collaborative process. The Bureau assembled a roomful of wild horse opponents, and two groups were picked to represent wild horse interests – Return to Freedom and Humane Society of the United States. They failed. In exchange for assurances that wild horses would not be killed (an outcome already guaranteed by law), the ranchers got their program of aggressive roundups that would turn public lands designated as HMAs for wild horses into the province of cattle and sheep. Wild horses got sold out, and the livestock interests were put in the driver’s seat. They called it “The Path Forward.”

Ironically, while wild horse populations are routinely reduced in the name of a “thriving natural ecological balance,” no such legal requirement applies to livestock. After agencies manage wild horse populations downward, they often sneak cattle or sheep numbers upward. The agency is simply swapping commercial livestock for non-commercial horses.

For the taxpayers, the absurdity is palpable. Wild horse populations decline, but land health problems persist. We spend tens of millions on roundups and holding facilities, but few horses are adopted, and the vast majority go into long-term pasture at taxpayer expense. Our government removes free-ranging horses from public lands – where private livestock grazing is valued at $1.35 per animal per month – and deports them to private lands where they charge as much as $60 a month, per horse. This outcome shifts cattle off of well-watered, productive pasturelands in the Midwest more-suited to livestock, while boosting cattle numbers in the arid West where they are ecological misfits and do tremendous damage to fragile lands, streams, and ecosystems. 

Wild horses are just one more notch in the livestock industry’s campaign of Manifest Destiny, to tame the wilderness, dominate and subdue nature, and make the public lands profitable for themselves. It’s time to abandon today’s livestock-driven approach to wild horses, get the political agendas out of the way, and embark upon a science-driven approach. The Wild Horse and Burro Act already provides a sound framework for ecologically sustainable solutions. If only federal agencies would obey the law, and start reining in the ecological abuses of the livestock industry for a change. 


Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring wildlife and watersheds across the American West.


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