Casualties of the Vanishing West

The American wild horse continues to lose habitat to special interest groups

Chief, a Kiger mustang born in the remote wilderness of Utah, lives with 400 other rescued wild horses and burros in a 1,500 acre sanctuary, hundreds of miles from his original home. Years ago the stallion was captured in a round up led by the Bureau of Land Management. After a long helicopter chase, he ended up in a government-run holding facility for years before being adopted by Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary in Lompoc, CA. Not all horses rounded up by the BLM are as lucky.

Photo of Wild Horses in UtahPhoto by Bureau of Land Management - Utah Over the past four decades the BLM has eradicated or moved to holding facilities more than 70 percent of the country’s wild horse population.

The majority of captured equines remain stuck for years, if not for the rest of their lives, in cramped holding facilities that are quickly running out of space. As of July 2015 the facilities held 47,000 wild horses, and the BLM’s holding capacity is set at 50,929. Yet the agency is planning to remove another 2,739 wild horses and burros this year at a taxpayer cost of $78 million.

An example of an emergency holding facility for excess mustangs is a cattle feedlot in Scott City, Kansas. In 2014, a BLM contractor leased the feedlot, owned by Beef Belt LLC, to hold 1,900 mares. The horses were transported from pasture to corrals designed for fattening up cattle. Within the first few weeks of their arrival, at least 75 mares died. Mortality reports acquired from the BLM through the Freedom of Information Act show that as of June 2015, 143 more horses had died. The facility is closed to the public.

BLM’s management of American wild horses and burros has several tales of mismanagement and animal neglect like the one above. Since 1971, the BLM has removed more than 270,000 wild horses and burros from public lands, in what it says is an effort to avoid overpopulation and “to protect animal and land health.” Ideally the rounded up animals should be adopted or shipped to long-term pastures, but in the past several years the number of horses being adopted have fallen dramatically. As a result, every year, more and more of these animals end up languishing in what are supposed to be temporary holding facilities.

Over the past four decades the BLM has eradicated or moved to holding facilities more than 70 percent of the country’s wild horse population. According to BLM’s current estimates, there are only about 48,000 horses remaining in the wild.


The Bureau of Land Management is mandated by law to protect the future of the wild horses and burros of America. In 1971, in response to growing public protest over the indiscriminate capture and slaughter of wild horses by ranchers and hunters, President Richard Nixon signed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, making harassing or killing feral horses or burros on federal land a criminal offense. The law recognized the animals as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”

In 2004 the Act was stripped of its central purpose when Republican Senator Conrad Burns of Montana prepared what is now widely known as “the Burns Amendment.” Taking advantage of his position as chair of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, Burns slipped his bill in with complete secrecy, knowing that committee reports cannot be amended. The bill amending the 1971 Act was never introduced to Congress; it was never discussed or voted on.
The amendment allows the BLM to sell older and unadoptable animals at livestock auctions. These auctions often draw ‘kill buyers’ who seek horses for slaughterhouses, as the LA Times reports.

The Burns Amendment overruled critical sections of the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, and overturned 33 years of national policy.

“The law was one of the few ever passed unanimously by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. To ignore the democratic will of the general public of the US in order to favor certain minority vested interests, mainly rich individuals and corporations, is a true perversion of democracy and a shameful betrayal,” says wildlife ecologist and author Craig Downer.

Before becoming an advocate for the wild horse and burro cause, Downer worked for the BLM. He conducted stream site inventory and assessment work in their Nevada chapter. During his time at the agency, he learned that wild horses and burros weren’t the animals that were causing stream and lakeside habitat degradation in regions where they roamed free.

”Overwhelmingly it was the livestock, chiefly cattle, that degrade the vital riparian habitats. They are post-gastric digesters while the other large North American grazers are almost exclusively ruminant digesters. Horses and burros also disperse their foraging over vaster areas and into more rugged terrain than cattle,” he says.

Here’s how Downer explains it further. (Excerpted from his presentation at the Wild Horse Summit in 2008):

“Being much less mobile than wild horses and burros, livestock concentrate their grazing pressures in certain areas, especially in and along species-rich stream, marsh, or lake shore habitats known as riparian (which I have experience monitoring with the BLM). Cattle and sheep have destroyed these riparian habitats on a large scale by overgrazing throughout the West — as throughout the world, especially in arid and semi-arid areas, and thus are responsible for the extinction or near extinction of literally thousands of species of plants and animals.

The wild horses, on the other hand, do not linger at watering sites or along riparian areas but disperse their grazing pressure much more broadly in the arid to semi-arid West; and as a consequence they greatly reduce dry parched vegetation. Their post-gastric digestive system is perfectly suited to taking advantage of this drier, usually coarser vegetation, as such does not entail as much metabolic energy involved with the more thorough breakdown of this food when compared with ruminant grazers: cattle, sheep, deer, elk, etc. Their digestion also favors the dispersal of the seeds of many native plant species that are not as degraded in passing through their digestive tracts. These involve species that have in many cases co-evolved for millions of years with horses and even burro-like Asses, developing many mutually beneficial symbioses in the process.”

Photo of Wild Horses in UtahPhoto by Bureau of Land Management - Utah A wild horse that has just been captured in a BLM round-up. The majority of captured equines remain stuck for years, if not for the rest of their lives, in cramped holding facilities that are quickly running out of space.

According to the BLM, there is an overpopulation of horses on public lands. The agency states that because of federal protection and a lack of natural predators, wild horse and burro herds can double in size about every four years, which leads to habitat degradation and unhealthy herds. Yet the agency allows millions of cows to graze on the same lands where wild horses were previously removed.

Cows originate from Europe and thus are adapted to riparian meadow areas. Their grazing can be devastating for dry Western ecosystems, especially in many areas wherethey outnumber wild horses 50 to 1. According to Downer, well-managed wild horse populations can contribute positively to ecosystems that they have adapted to due to their evolutionary past. “Restoring the missing ‘equid element’ with its post-gastric digestive system works wonders for the plains and prairies as well as the drier regions further west,” he explains.

But it is not only cattle that are granted right-of-way on public lands. In 2010, a controversial round up held in the Calico Mountain Complex of Nevada removed 2,500 horses from their habitat. The round up caused 160 horse deaths, including those of two foals who were chased on icy terrain until their hooves had sloughed off. The eradication of a healthy horse population from such a remote location raised questions.

There were allegations that the removal was initiated to make way for a multi-billion dollar corporate project, the Ruby Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline that traverses through northern Nevada on its way from Wyoming to Oregon. The BLM denied any connection, but Pipeline construction began four months after the round up, and the natural gas line now runs through the mountain complex.

BLM spokesperson Greg Fuhs says the agency does not give away rights-of-way to companies. “The BLM authorizes specific pieces of public land for certain projects and charges rent for such use,” he says. “The BLM collects forage fees for livestock grazing, conducts oil and gas lease sales, and requires payment of an annual maintenance fee (unless labor is performed or improvements are made) on mining claims.”

The BLM’s management of wild horses has long been under scrutiny. In 1994 Jim Baca, then director of the BLM, started an internal investigation into illegal practices within the agency. He found that BLM employees were selling wild horses to contractors for slaughter. The scheme involved the use of satellite ranches and so-called horse sanctuaries set up to hide the horses.

The US Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Texas wanted to bring criminal indictments against BLM officials, but the case was closed in the summer of 1997 after federal officials in Washington DC, including officials not involved in the investigation, intervened.

“I believe that my investigation was obstructed all along by persons within the BLM because they did not want to be embarrassed,’’ the prosecutor, Mrs. Alia Ludlum, wrote in a memo that year, a copy of which, along with thousands of other grand jury documents, was obtained by the Associated Press. “I think there is a terrible problem with the program and with government agents placing themselves above the law,” Ludlum wrote.

According to Baca during the investigation, Bruce Babbitt, then Secretary of the Interior, told him to back off. Baca left office the same year.

“The wild horse and burro program has always been answerable to only the livestock industry and their political power over Western Senators and Congressmen. All of the administrations bow to that power, ” Baca says.

According to Baca, in failing to understand the importance of western public lands, administrations continue sacrificing them for special interests. “They don’t see any gain to their political careers by rocking the boat.”

Baca believes the horse numbers should be controlled, but they should not be on a slow course to extinction. “Every horse not on the range means another cow and calf that will be. BLM has always been a step child to the whims of the oil, gas, coal, mining and livestock industries.”

Baca believes the idea of special sanctuaries on the range is promising. “The wild horses should be allowed to exist for future generations to appreciate. A wild horse crammed into a corral is nothing more than a life sentence to misery.”

The BLM’s annual wild horse and burro round up is already underway this year (see reports here and here). Wild horse and burro advocates say if the animals are not rounded up, but instead have their numbers managed via fertility control methods, maintaining them would cost virtually nothing – providing a solution for the program’s inefficiency and high cost.

About 60 to 70 percent of the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program budget is spent on roundups and holding facilities, while only 6 percent is spent on fertility control and keeping horses on the range. (In 2014, holding horses in off-range facilities cost more than $43 million, which accounted for 63 percent of the Wild Horse and Burro Program’s annual budget. The total lifetime cost for caring for a captured animal that’s not adopted is nearly $50,000.) Redirecting federal funds from costly and traumatic round-ups to in-the-wild fertility management could save taxpayers millions.

That, however, would require the BLM to stand up to the industries it is supposed to regulate, Baca says.

Historically, the BLM and the Department of Interior have had deep ties to the industries they administer. Former Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, for instance, comes from one of the oldest cattle families of Colorado. The current director of BLM, Neil Kornze, has ties to the mining industry. Son of a Barrick Gold Corporation employee, Kornze worked as a natural resources staffer for Harry Reid, a politician supported in part by mining industries. An article in the Las Vegas Sun also alleges Harry Reid gave his approval for the Burns Amendment before it passed.

Recently the agency has been making efforts to chart a new course for managing wild horses and burros. In a July statement, the bureau said it would “initiate 21 research projects aimed at developing new tools for managing healthy horses and burros on healthy rangelands, including safe and effective ways to slow the population growth rate of the animals and reduce the need to remove animals from the public lands.”

BLM spokesperson Greg Fuhs says the bureau is looking into fertility-control vaccines and spaying to help slow the wild horse population growth. “Research projects will begin with “pen trials” to evaluate methods, such as spaying, on a small number of animals in a controlled corral or pasture setting. If a pen trial yields promising results, then a “field trial” will further evaluate some methods in the natural setting of a Herd Area,” he says.


Neda DeMayo, the president of Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary, says the public is generally unaware of the wild horses and burros, and of how the public lands are managed. She believes education to be the key in the survival of the wild equines.

Some still believe the wild horse to be an invasive species in North America, brought to the New World by Conquistadors from Spain. But a 1992 study conducted by Helsinki University Zoological Institute estimates E. Caballus, the modern horse, originated from the North American continent 1.7 million years ago. The finding, based on molecular and paleontological evidence, has been further supported by Michael Hfreiter, of the Department of Evolutionary Genetics at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany.

Chief, the stallion captured years ago by the BLM who now lives in DeMayo’s sanctuary, is a Kiger mustang and as such a carrier of the ancient Iberian Sorraia horse’s bloodline.

There is evidence that the BLM is managing the horses at such a low level their genetic viability might be compromised. According to The BLM’s lead equine geneticist, Dr. Gus Cothran’s DNA analysis, a healthy population size should consist of 150-200 animals to prevent inbreeding. Currently only 25 percent federally managed wild horses herds meet that demand.

DeMayo is committed to preserving the wild horse with its diverse bloodlines for future generations. Working with the issue for almost 20 years, she has learned that the real fight is about economics. The problem, she says, is that the wild horse doesn’t make any money.

“As long as the only value put on wildlife is money, nothing will change.”

Note: This article has been revised to include a more detailed explanation of ecologist Craig Downer’s argument that well-managed wild horse populations can contribute positively to certain ecosystems.

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