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September 20, 2021

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Shrinking habitat and heated politics imperiling a living symbol of the West

Wild Horses and Burros

Wild horses make their way through the Spring Mountains rangeland near Cold Creek Feb. 28, 2017. Lead concentrations more than 30 times above safe levels have been identified in the soil of some portions of Lovell Canyon. Activists believe that unauthorized target shooting in the area is to blame.

It is easiest to begin with the one point everybody agrees on: There’s a problem.

Anything beyond that is contentious — what exactly the problem is, how it should be solved, even what you call the living creatures at the center.

The Bureau of Land Management is housing more than 46,000 wild horses and burros, all removed from free-roaming herds deemed too large for the rangeland’s limited forage, water and other resources to sustain without damage on both sides. Caring for just one of these animals costs up to $50,000 over its life, and they can live a long time. Average burro lifespan: 25 years. In rare cases, mustangs reach 40.

Vital stats

3,320: Number of horses and burros removed from the range and taken into BLM holding facilities over the 2016 fiscal year, compared with 8,255 in fiscal year 2012. According to the BLM, removals have decreased because “resources are inadequate to care for more unplaced animals,” which cost taxpayers up to $50,000 over each animal’s lifetime if maintained in a BLM facility.

$78.29 million: Budget for the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program across the 10 Western states. Nearly $50 million — 63% of all funding — goes to the cost of holding animals off-range.

235,000+: Number of wild horses and burros adopted out nationwide since 1971. In fiscal year 2016, 2,440 horses and 472 burros removed from the Western rangeland were adopted. BLM officials say they are used as working ranch animals, for trail riding, show competitions and therapeutic services. “Some of the horses are bought just to live out their lives in private care.”

Because the BLM is only able to adopt out or sell about 3,000 of these animals each year, it can’t clear corral space fast enough to bring in the additional 40,000 it believes must be removed to bring herds across 10 Western states to “appropriate management levels.” Of the 67,027 animals roaming, Nevada supports more than half, amounting to almost triple the federal cap.

Wild Horses and Burros

Wild horses wander about the late-day sun within the Spring Mountains area on Tuesday, March 14, 2017, in Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

The BLM has been trying for nearly five decades to balance the health of the herds, their habitat and other claims on public land, going back to the 1971 passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

It declared the animals “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West,” emphasizing both their value in American culture and plight in “fast disappearing” from the range. While the law demands their protection, it also allows for humane euthanasia if it serves the management strategy.

That option has never been exercised. Congress votes on it annually and has chosen each time to block its usage. However, an independent advisory board last fall recommended that the BLM sell without limitations — meaning known “kill buyers” could bid — or euthanize any wild horses and burros it couldn’t adopt or sell under current parameters. The recommendation caused a barrage of public outcry, despite it also pushing for intensified adoption efforts. One member of the advisory board reported receiving death threats.

The BLM responded firmly that it was not considering that solution. Outcry eased. Public interest moved on. But the problem remains.

The Utah Legislature is considering a bill that would shift management of wild horses and burros to the state in hopes of beginning the practice of slaughtering excess animals and selling them overseas to markets less squeamish about eating the meat.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit has been winding its way through the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Nevada Association of Counties and rangeland advocates representing mostly ranchers and farmers are demanding the BLM do its mandated job of keeping wild horse and burro populations at those “appropriate” levels by any means at its disposal. A lower court ruled in favor of animal advocates, and many similar lawsuits have failed.

Euthanizing or selling these animals for slaughter is not an attractive option for the government, but some believe it necessary to preserve the region’s ecological integrity and ensure its optimal use. They point to other countries, like Australia, that manage their wild horse populations this way.

“I understand they’re living symbols of the pioneering spirit,” says Doug Busselman, executive vice president of the Nevada Farm Bureau Federation. “I can appreciate the emotional aspect, but at some point the grown-ups have to move forward with doing what needs to be done.”

From the perspective of wild horse advocates, the BLM isn’t moving aggressively enough toward humane, workable solutions — primarily the widespread use of the horse birth control vaccine commonly known as PZP. They also believe that appropriate management levels (AMLs) were arbitrarily set, and that the BLM favors ranchers and their livestock over supporting larger populations of wild animals.

Click to enlarge photo

A wild burro wanders about Oatman, Arizona, a small town southeast of Las Vegas with lots of character on Saturday, November 17, 2013.

Nevada and regional BLM officials responded to such criticism in a collective email, explaining that “AML is determined after the collection and analysis of rangeland resource and population data spanning several years, including data relating to actual use, population size and distribution, vegetation and soil types, weather and water quality.” The agency stressed that while the range may be able to support more animals during seasons not considered critical growth periods, levels are set to ensure year-round sustainability.

Animal advocates acknowledge the need for management. With few natural predators, wild horses and burros can’t be left unchecked. “They don’t live under natural conditions. Historically, they followed migratory routes; now they’re confined within herd management areas,” explained Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. “What we advocate for is giving the horses a fair share of resources (along with livestock). ... We think there’s room for both.”

Beyond these arguments is the question: Are these horses even wild? The American cohort descended from domestic horses brought by European explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries. More extreme rangeland advocates argue that because the herds aren’t native, they are feral, not wild. The idea is that changing what we call them could de-romanticize the way we think about the animals and their management.

Wild horse advocates dismiss the idea.

“They are the horses we rode in on. They built the West. They’re part of the Western landscape, and the public really supports wild horses being out there,” said Roy, whose organization cites a 2013 public policy poll showing 72 percent of surveyed voters wanted wild horses protected. “In a world where what’s wild has been paved over, there are still these animals out there — unbridled. That’s meaningful to people.”

Therein lies the big-picture conflict: The Wild West no longer exists. It’s just the West, every inch managed, every resource claimed. Wild horses and burros aren’t just competing with livestock. The threatened desert tortoise presents one example of various habitat clashes. Human development continues to encroach, and despite pushback from voters and the head of the U.S. Interior Department, some lawmakers are keen to sell big swaths of public land. The millions and millions of acres managed by the BLM isn’t as vast as it sounds.

    • A horse pauses as he wanders through the grasslands about the Spring Mountains area near Cold Creek on Tuesday, March 14, 2017.

      A horse pauses as he wanders through the grasslands about the Spring Mountains area near Cold Creek on Tuesday, March 14, 2017.


      When the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed in 1971, the animals were found on 53.8 million acres of public land, 42.4 million acres under BLM jurisdiction.

      Today, those numbers have dropped to 31.6 million and 26.9 million acres. BLM officials attribute the decrease to a number of factors, including “checkerboard” land ownership situations or areas where water was not agency-controlled; transfers of land to other federal and state agencies; substantial conflicts with other resource values (such as protected desert tortoise habitat); land use ending through court decisions, urban expansion or highway fencing; and land use never being sustainable because of missing components of critical habitat. And the act states that animals can’t be relocated to lands where they were not found roaming when it was passed.

      The BLM determines the Appropriate Management Level (AML), or number of wild horses and burros “that can thrive in balance with other public land resources and uses.” As of March 1, 2016, the AML was 26,715, with the population across the West exceeding that cap by more than 40,000. Only 29 Herd Management Areas were at or below the AML, while 148 were above.

      Click to enlarge photo

      Horses wander near homes on Cold Creek Road about an hour outside of Las Vegas.

      In its 2013 report to the BLM, the National Academy of Sciences found that, because wild horses and burros have virtually no natural predators, herds can double in size about every four years. And as of February 2017, animals waiting for adoption or sale in holding facilities numbered 46,355. The capacity of those facilities is 57,334.

      Off-range animals in the West (as of February 2017)

      Off-range corrals: 12,568 horses, 1,051 burros

      Off-range pastures: 32,178 horses, 0 burros

      Eco-sanctuaries: 558 horses, 0 burros *Eco-sanctuaries in Oklahoma and Wyoming provide large free-roaming environments for un-adopted wild horses. They also support programs that provide unique viewing and educational opportunities for visitors curious about America’s wild herds.

      Total: 45,304 horses, 1,051 burros = 46,355

      There are 83 herd management areas in Nevada and 177 total across the West.

      Nevada has about half of the region’s wild horses and burros because of the large amount of federal land under long-term management for their care. So far in FY17, 1,889 animals have been taken from the range, with the BLM prioritizing removals of animals that pose some kind of public safety issue, such as those on the highway or in agricultural fields, or encroaching on private land or sage grouse habitat. The agency plans to remove approximately 90 more through Sept. 30. In addition, 252 mares were treated with fertility-control vaccines and returned to the range to help slow population growth.

      Population on the range vs. AML by state (as of March 2016)

      Arizona: 318 horses, 5,317 burros = 5,635 vs. 1,676 AML

      California: 4,925 horses, 3,391 burros = 8,316 vs. 2,200 AML

      Colorado: 1,530 horses, 0 burros = 1,530 vs. 812 AML

      Idaho: 468 horses, 0 burros = 468 vs. 617 AML

      Montana: 160 horses, 0 burros = 160 vs. 120 AML

      Nevada: 31,979 horses, 2,552 burros = 34,531 vs. 12,811 AML

      New Mexico: 171 horses, 0 burros = 171 vs. 83 AML

      Oregon: 3,785 horses, 56 burros = 3,841 vs. 2,715 AML

      Utah: 5,440 horses, 400 burros = 5,840 vs. 1,956 AML

      Wyoming: 6,535 horses, 0 burros = 6,535 vs. 3,725 AML

      Total: 55,311 horses, 11,716 burros = 67,027 vs. 26,715 AML

    • Though it's not advised to feed wild or feral horses some are still doing just that about the Spring Mountains area near Cold Creek on Tuesday, March 14, 2017.  The violation can come first with a warning and even fines, the practice can encourage the animals to locate near populated areas and roadways.

      Though it's not advised to feed wild or feral horses some are still doing just that about the Spring Mountains area near Cold Creek on Tuesday, March 14, 2017. The violation can come first with a warning and even fines, the practice can encourage the animals to locate near populated areas and roadways.


      Animal Advocates

      Example: American Wild Horse Campaign

      They assert: Roundups are inhumane, and overpopulation is a myth as “appropriate management levels” are arbitrarily set. There is room on the range for more horses and burros as more than 80 percent of BLM land grazed by livestock is not shared by wild herds.

      They champion: The BLM adjusting what is considered overpopulation, allocating more resources to wild animals over livestock, and emphasizing birth control over roundups and removals.

      Rangeland Advocates

      Example: National Horse & Burro Rangeland Management Coalition

      They assert: Wild horses and burros are at risk of starvation and dehydration because the BLM is failing to adequately manage them. They are overgrazing forage plants, trampling vegetation and compacting soil, leading to an unstable ecosystem that threatens native wildlife and the health of the rangeland.

      They champion: The BLM reaching appropriate management levels through all available means, including establishing nonreproducing herds or “processing” the animals.

      The BLM

      The BLM “manages, protects and controls” wild horses and burros under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. The agency monitors the herds and is authorized to remove excess animals from the range to ensure populations and public lands remain healthy. It is responsible for

      the animals’ welfare on the range and in holding facilities and through programs for adoption or sale.


      Selective Removal (used frequently)

      BLM roundups result in selective removal of animals from wild habitat. Those 4 years old or younger are removed first because they are most appealing for adoption or sale. After that, 11- to 19-year-olds are selected as they will spend less time in BLM holding pastures. The lowest priorities are ages 5 to 10, because they are in their prime, and 20 or older, because they have the greatest difficulty adapting to living in captivity.

      Birth Control (used frequently)

      The most promising contraceptive for horses is porcine zona pellucida (PZP). It’s a liquid vaccine that can be administered through a dart and is effective for one year if you can access the herds on the range, which is not always possible. A PZP pellet is effective for 22 months but must be hand-injected, and gathering enough of a herd’s mares to make a dent can be a challenge.

      Sterilization (used infrequently)

      Castration is seen as a humane and effective method of sterilizing stallions and decreasing herd sizes. Spaying and other methods of sterilizing mares are being considered, but none has proven fruitful yet, so the BLM has not used it as a management tool.

      Sex ratio management (used infrequently)

      One way to slow population growth is to adjust herd sex ratios to include more males than females. This is applicable to larger Herd Management Areas and is most practical if a herd is already at its appropriate level.

      Euthanasia or selling for slaughter (not used)

      The BLM does not euthanize excess wild horses and burros when their facilities become full. Likewise, it does not sell or send any animals to slaughter for human consumption or other commercial purposes. When an independent advisory board last fall recommended euthanasia, the BLM doubled down and said it was not considering this option.

    • Horses wander near homes in Cold Creek as they feed in the grasslands about the Spring Mountains area on Tuesday, March 14, 2017.

      Horses wander near homes in Cold Creek as they feed in the grasslands about the Spring Mountains area on Tuesday, March 14, 2017.


      Whether you attend an adoption event or visit a holding facility, any potential steward of wild horses and burros must qualify through a BLM application. If approved to adopt, you’re agreeing to care for the animal for a review period of one year, after which you can apply for title.

      Prior to December 2004, all transfers to private care were adoptions. That was when the Burns Amendment to the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act passed, making animals older than 10 or that had been passed over for adoption at least three times eligible for sale.

      The BLM maintains its policy “not to sell or send any wild horses or burros to slaughter,” and proceeds funnel into the adoption program. Adoption rates are higher for trained animals, so the BLM works with volunteers, nonprofits and state and county prison programs. In FY 2015, these efforts resulted in the training of 1,020 horses and 79 burros.

      “The adoption and sales programs are some of the more important tools that BLM has to manage wild horse and burro population growth on public lands,” a representative of the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program said in an email. “By working with our partners to make more trained and untrained animals available for adoption and purchase, annual adoption rates have begun to increase in recent years — 2,898 in 2015 and 3,116 in 2016. We look forward to improving these efforts to find more good homes for our nation’s wild horses and burros.”


      National Wild Horse and Burro Center at Palomino Valley

      Where: 20 miles north of Reno/Sparks

      The nation’s largest BLM facility for prep and adoption of wild horses and burros houses animals from Nevada and nearby states, most of which are available for adoption six days a week (8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday; 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday). It is best to schedule an appointment for viewing and potential adoption by calling 775-475-2222.

      Northern Nevada Correctional Center/Stewart Conservation Camp Saddle Horse and Burro Training Program

      Where: Carson City

      In a partnership between the BLM and the Nevada Department of Corrections-Silver State Industries, inmates train 60-75 wild horses for adoption each year. (Horses receive 120 days of training, meaning they are “green-broke” and still need daily handling by an experienced rider.) The facility opens to the public three or four times a year for competitive-bid adoptions conducted by an auctioneer (bidding starts with the base adoption fee of $125; females adopted with their foals start at $250). The next one is June 10. For more information, click here.

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