a herd of horses running through a field

Photo from the Bureau of Land Management


The Northern Nevada Correctional Center houses 2,947 inmates: 1,469 are men, 17 are women, and 1,461 are horses.

These horses were not convicted of any crime. But like the human prisoners who train them, most won’t be leaving the facility anytime soon. Just like the 1,420 horses that are part of the Cañon City Wild Horse Inmate Program in Colorado and the 2,043 placed in rural Bruneau, Idaho, these institutionalized equines are a part of a nation-spanning holding system for America’s wild horses.

Altogether, nearly 45,000 American wild horses live in federally administered corrals and pastures—facilities that one federal advisory board member likens to “prisons”—all to the tune of roughly $56 million per year.

The Bureau of Land Management’s “off-range” adoption facility system is only one element of the federal government’s ungainly effort to manage America’s wild horse and donkey population. The BLM also rounds up feral horses with helicopters and hires air rifle-toting sharpshooters to trek into the mountains and dart fertile mares with birth control serum. The goal: to keep these notoriously procreative animals from overrunning the western rangeland, destroying the ecosystem, and jeopardizing the interests of ranchers and oil and gas drillers.

And yet, forty-five years after the program’s implementation, the wild horse population continues to grow. As of this year, some 67,000 horses live on tracts of federal land that the BLM estimates is suitable for fewer than 27,000. Now, with its horse holding system reaching capacity, the government is running out of places to warehouse these icons of the national spirit.

The debate over what to do with these animals makes for a strange political battle, one that pits government regulators, animal rights activists, conservationists, and western cattle ranchers against one another.

This is a battle is about more than horses. This is a fight over the nature of conservation in the 21st century, over the special and arbitrarily selective relationship that humans maintain with their favored animals, and over the future of what remains of the American west.

A Law That Worked Too Well

The American wild horse crisis has been a long time in the making.

Modern horses have been present in North America as long as Europeans, but the history of the federal government’s wild horse program dates back to 1971 when, with a heady mix of early 1970s environmentalism and patriotic nostalgia, Congress unanimously passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

The law, which declared wild horses and burros “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West”, effectively banned the long-standing “mustanger” industry, the business of rounding up wild horses and selling them for slaughter.

The act also changed the relationship between wild horses and the Bureau of Land Management, which had long regarded the feral animals as grass-chewing, rancher-disrupting pests. Under the new regime the BLM was forced to set aside land for the animals and to keep their numbers at a healthy, sustainable level.

This proved to be unexpectedly difficult.

“They reproduce at a rate that can increase the population anywhere from about 10% to 18% a year,” explains John Turner, an endocrinologist at the University of Toledo who has been studying wild horse fertility since the mid-1970s. “They’re very prolific…I take my hat off to them.”

Once legislation made it illegal to hunt and harvest the animals—and with mountain lion populations falling across the west—the wild horse population exploded. In the BLM’s view, the growing herd and its appetite for fodder and water couldn’t be sustained by the arid, unforgiving climate of the western rangeland.

a horse standing in a fenced in area with cows in the background

Photo from the Bureau of Land Management

Since the inception of the program, the Bureau’s main solution to the problem has been to remove the excess animals from the range.

The horses are rounded up, either with the use of bait traps or by steering the herds into holding pens with helicopters (much to the chagrin of horse welfare activists). Where to put them? As the wild horse population tripled over the course of the 1970s, the agency set up an adoption system. But wild horses, untrained and socialized among feral herds, are difficult to pawn off on the public, so the BLM set up its holding system to handle the backlog.

That holding system, which is comprised of seventeen facilities scattered over eleven states, has been growing ever since.

The short-term corrals and long-term pastures serve as adoption centers, but adoptions don’t always keep up with roundup removals. As a result, many of these horses spend the remainder of their lives in BLM-funded lodgings. And conditions at these sites vary.

“It’s like they’re in prison,” says Sue McDonnell, referring to the short-term holding facilities.  McDonnell is an equine physiologist at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the nine-member independent advisory board that makes policy recommendations to the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program. As she characterizes them, many of these facilities lack open space as well as shelter from the sun and the elements.

“They’re pens out in the middle of really harsh climates,” she says. “If I were to adopt a horse, I couldn’t keep them in those conditions.”

McDonnell says that the long-term pasture holdings often provide better lodging for the animals than the short-term facilities, but that many of the animals remain traumatized from the helicopter roundups and from their time in the corrals.

In any case, the holding system also comes at a sizable (and growing) cost. There are currently over 45,000 horses and wild burros in the system, and room and board for each one costs between $1.50 and $7 per horse per day. This year, roughly $56 million, or 70% of the Wild Horse and Burro Program budget, was spent on short- and long-term holding.

The Bureau’s wild horse backlog grew steadily through the 2000s, but that trend was further compounded by the recession. After 2008, the adoption market for feral horses dried up, and the wild horse population grew in leaps and bounds as cash-strapped ranchers, breeders, and other owners turned their horses loose on federal land. According to McDonnell, the BLM started to find “wild” horses with their bridles still on during their roundups.

And so the BLM faces a dilemma.

“If you do nothing, the horses will starve and die of thirst, and the habitat will be destroyed,” says John Turner from the University of Toledo. “If you just remove them, the cost is astronomical. So what are you left with?”

In fact, there are only two remaining options: “You can kill them, or you can control the rate at which they reproduce.”

They (Want To) Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

In September of this year, the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program advisory board went with the kill option.

“I really want to think that we can adopt our way out of this,” Ben Masters, an advisory board member, explained at the semi-annual board meeting in Elko, Nevada. “But, you know, it’s just not realistic.”

“To do nothing,” added Steve Yardly, another board member and a cattle rancher, “may possibly be the cruelest things we could do.”

Julie Weikel, a large animal vet, agreed: “We’ve got to unplug the pipeline.”

By unplugging the pipeline, Weikel meant that the BLM should begin selling the unadoptable horses in the holding system to any and all buyers, no questions asked, and to euthanize the rest.

By some accounts, the BLM has some experience with this approach. As David Phillips reported in ProPublica in 2012, the Bureau allowed a well-known horse slaughter advocate to adopt nearly 2,000 horses and chose “not to look too closely” at where the horses were going. A subsequent federal report revealed that the animals had in fact been sold to slaughterhouses in Mexico.

In the aftermath of those sales, animal welfare activists lambasted the agency. But one could argue that the Bureau was simply following federal law. In 2004, Conrad Burns, then a United States senator from Montana, inserted an amendment into an appropriations bill requiring the BLM to sell excess, unadopted wild horses “without limitation.” After backlash from the public, another rider was added the following year preventing the Bureau from using funds to facilitate the slaughter of wild horses.

In other words, the advisory board’s recommendation was simultaneously redundant (since it restated the Burns amendment) and impossible to enact. And the board knew that.

“We know this isn’t going to happen,” Robert Cope, the board member who introduced the recommendation, said at the meeting. “But we also think that the Secretary [of the Interior, Sally Jewell], the Director [of the BLM, Neil Kornze], and Congress should be made aware of the severity of the problem.”

a helicopter flying over a herd of cattle

Photo from the Bureau of Land Management

If raising awareness was the goal, the advisory board certainly succeeded. Immediately after the meeting, animal welfare groups issued a torrent of press releases protesting the board’s “dangerous” and “unhinged” recommendation. Headlines at Fox News and The Independent warned that the government was planning to kill wild horses to make room for cattle ranchers. The BLM immediately rushed out its own statement that it was under no obligation to abide by the advisory board’s recommendations and that, no, it had no plans to start killing wild horses or selling them for slaughter.

Sue McDonnell from the University of Pennsylvania says she voted for the measure, though she would not support a blanket unrestricted sale and euthanasia policy were there any chance that it would actually to be implemented.

“They should be managed like other wildlife are managed,” she says. “The most humane thing to do would be to just euthanize [them] on the range with a sharpshooter.”

Planned Sirehood

Not everyone agrees. Rather than shoot the horses with bullets, many advocates prefer darts.

“We need to be a lot more creative in the way that we manage wild horses,” says Ginger Kathrens, the only member of the advisory board to have voted against the recommendation.

Kathrens is a documentary filmmaker whose PBS Nature films on “Cloud,” a stallion in the Pryor Mountain mustang herd, has made her a fixture of the activist network that advocates for the end of round-up based wild horse management.

According to Kathrens, who is also the founder and executive director the Cloud Foundation, a more creative approach would entail focusing on fertility control. The BLM, along with a number of nonprofits and researchers, currently use air rifle darts and hand administered injections to “vaccinate” mares with fertility control treatments. These treatments last from one to four years, though research is in the works for a permanent fix.

Still, the BLM dedicates a vanishingly small portion (less than 1%) of its budget to administering these vaccines. In 2015, only 469 horses were darted.

“Some of my fellow board members say that it doesn’t work,” says Kathrens. “Well, we know that it works. There are research papers up the yingyang.”

John Turner, who has been studying horse fertility control since the mid-1970s, is the author of some of those papers. Still, he is skeptical that fertility control could be employed on a nationwide scale. Mares can be darted on a regular basis when the herds are relatively tame and living in accessible areas, he says.

“When you’re trying to do it on a large scale like the federal government is trying to do, there are some populations that are over a thousand horses roaming around out there,” says Turner.

That kind of population-wide fertility treatment program, which would need to be conducted on a continual basis as the vaccines wear off, would come at a significant cost. In the meantime, you still have over 45,000 horses held in corrals and pastures across the country. What to do about them?

a horse and a horse

Photo from the National Park Service

According to Suzanne Roy, Executive Director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, this could be addressed by putting more resources into the training of off-range horses (the BLM currently partners with prisons to train or “gentle” horses in order to make them more attractive for would-be adopters) and by opening up more land for the wild horses on the range.

As Roy puts it, wild horses are only “overpopulated” if you assume that the amount of land granted to them is fixed. Of the 245 million acres that the BLM manages, wild horses occupy 27 million. And on that land, she says, 80% of the forage is given to commercial livestock.

“They say, ‘ok, based on giving horses the scraps of forage, this is how many horses we can have in this area,’” she says.

Of course, taking land away from ranchers and giving it to feral horses would come at a cost too—either financial or political. In March of 2014, when the Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy was planning his standoff with the BLM, he received support from members of some nearby ranching communities who insisted that the Bureau had no right to confiscate the scofflaw rancher’s cattle as long as the agency was failing to keep its own horse herds in check.

“Why do you have money to deal with non-compliance as in the case with Mr. Cliven Bundy, but no funds to keep yourself in compliance?” wrote one official from a neighboring county in Utah.

But Roy says there will be trade-offs to whatever policy the BLM adopts.

“We can’t just jump to let’s kill all the horses,” she says.

A Special Relationship

How did we get here?

How did we get to the point where, in its effort to protect a particularly endeared animal, the federal government now spends tens of millions of dollars rounding them up with helicopters and shipping them to holding centers across the country? How did we reach the conclusion that responsible land management policy demands that a small army of sharpshooters roam the western rangeland in search of feral animals to dart with chemical birth control cocktails? Is this what American conservation looks like?

According to John Turner, the endocrinologist from the University of Toledo, the American wild horse policy is unique because we, as a country and a culture, have a unique relationship with horses.

In Australia, he explains, the primary solution to their feral horse, or “Brumby,” problem has been to hire marksmen and shoot them on the range—just as Sue McDonnell suggested. But few, McDonnell included, could argue that this is a politically realistic solution in the United States.

“Horses in this country are kind of revered as special because that’s how we ‘won the west’ and there are so many people who love horses and have horses,” says Turner. “We’ve developed a philosophy about wild horses and everything emanates from that philosophy, which is under no circumstances will you kill these animals.”

For the last forty-five years, our country has made this no kill policy an unwavering principle. We made this decision because we wanted to preserve, as the 1971 law puts it, one of the “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit.” Critics might note that this historic symbol was introduced to the continent relatively recently, that the majority of the “wild” horses on the rangeland are once-domesticated, feral outcasts, and that any “natural” and balancing ecosystem that might have once accommodated wild horses has long since been altered by human development. But this is beside the point.

The Wild Horse and Burro Program is less about conserving unaltered nature than it is preserving an idea: the idea of wild horses roaming the American west. So be it. Now it’s time we learn to properly take care of these animals that we profess to love.

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