Horse News

Points to Consider: Wild Horse and Burro Mortality

Original article by Lisa LeBlanc ~ SFTHH Investigative Journalist ~ with acknowledgments to Robert Bauer

BLM’s Skewed Math Rocks On

photo by Terry Fitch

Save for the wolf, few animals living wild on what’s left of the West’s ‘wide open’ spaces engender as much contention as wild equines. To some, they are iconic, tough and unfettered living anchors to our past, worthy of respect and preservation. To others, they are competitors for scarce rangeland resources, to be stringently controlled through mandates and policies and inevitably, removals. Procedural documents outline reasons for proposed removals of Wild Equines from a home range; most allude to the lack of available forage or limited water resources. Nearly all cite the absence of predators and the vast proclivity toward over-breeding of these long-lived species as compelling cause for removals.

But there are other factors, either missing or ignored, that contribute to the concept of stability in populations on the range and the uncertainty of what may languish in Holding. While this report is arguably biased, it’s purpose is to perhaps focus attention on those factors, to address critical errors and as an aid toward a truer assessment of what may actually exist – in Holding and On The Range – and why.

It is a natural and indisputable truth: All living things die. In the matter of Wild Equines, the accepted rates of mortality vary to a great extent. Beginning with foals, their first year is the most profound in terms of loss. One of the original National Academy of Sciences studies published in 1980 cited a 92% survival rate among foals, or a loss of 8%; while other rates in the study fluctuate widely, 8% seems to have been adopted as the norm. For those that survive their first critical year, mortality drops. According to the Bureau of Land Management’s “Strategic Research Plan/Wild Horse and Burro Management” , p. 12, estimated survival rates in adult Wild Equines ’exceed 95% annually’ and appear to remain constant during formative years and reproduction. Survival rates begin to lessen again for adults entering their late teens and twenties.

While mortality is acknowledged, there are no distinctions made from populations to fully quantify loss. If an average 5% loss were applied to an existing wild population, without age-related considerations – simply an ’average’ – nearly 2,000 animals could perish in a single year. The larger the population, the higher the loss. If calculating, year to year, only a 5% loss from published, on the range populations, roughly 20,357 animals have died since 2000. Of the 38,400 Wild Equines declared by the Bureau of Land Management for 2010, it’s conceivable a loss of 1,920 Wild Equines occurred – on the range, out of sight – newborns and elders, yearlings separated from their herds, non-survivable injuries sustained in competition or as the result of accidents, other natural stressors inherent in a wild environment or illegal culling .

Losses in captivity mirror closely those on the range. Published accounts generally recognize a 3% – 5% loss in Long Term Pastures, which allow free-roaming behavior and grazing, contributing to longevity. But not immortality. Calculating the average (4%) loss from Long Term Pasture’s largely-aged population of 27,570 (Wild Horse and Burro Numbers in Holding Facilities, Report Date 02/22/11), it’s possible a loss of 1,100 animals – 61 horses per Long Term Pasture – could occur over the course of a year.

Assuming only an ‘average’ 4% cumulative loss in all Holding facilities for the past 10 years, 7,360 animals have likely died. However, this is a conservative estimate; while Long Term Pastures allow for a more natural existence, Short Term and Maintenance facilities are considerably smaller environments, plagued by fundamental hazards: Serious injuries requiring euthanasia often occur from fractious animals living together in close quarters. Free-roaming behavior is curtailed; exercise diminished. Surgeries routinely go wrong. Unattended deaths of unknown origin occur. Even if painstaking attempts at sanitation were employed, it would not purge the bacteria, viruses and communicable diseases or food-borne ailments from the dirt or mud floor of a much-used enclosed pen. Particularly for vulnerable initiate animals, their natural defenses stressed by the processes of capture, unable to stave off illness or adjust to a foreign food. For Short Term and Maintenance Facilities, an 8% to 10% mortality rate might be more reasonable.

And though Holding Facility reports state 40,811 animals (as of 2/11) in Short & Long Term Holding, there appears to be no reporting method for animal mortality in Holding, simply the long, uninterrupted line of accumulation. Regarding cumulative losses, animals in Holding could be as few as 33,450 with variances possible from foals captured or born in captivity; that data also remains elusive and difficult to track.

It may be important to note that, while 40,811 animals – the approximation between what’s been removed and what’s been adopted – have been processed into Holding facilities over the past decade, the likelihood all continue to survive in the intervening years simply isn’t realistic.These figures must be accurate, with losses reported and accessible, particularly in light of summary granting of enormous budgetary requests which cite the rising cost of care and feeding of Wild Equines accrued – but that may no longer exist.

But it’s also vital to bear in mind – Wild Equines are not simply digits to be calculated or robotics to be modeled. There is a distinctiveness in these lives that should require recognition beyond theory or estimate. In decisions made which govern their existence in the wild, consideration should be given to them as living citizens of their home ranges and not simply as key strokes and statistics. And in Holding, their deaths should be accepted as fact, the losses defined – not exploited further.

All living things die; Wild Equines, whether free-roaming or in captivity, are no exception.

12 replies »

  1. Great article, Lisa! Thank you for writing this. Something else that is so very important was brought out by the Cloud Foundation in responding to the BLM Environmental Assessment for the round-up of more of Wyoming’s Wild Horses:

    “The wild horse is the only hoofed animal in our hemisphere that has a complex
    social structure in which the family unit has a male caretaker year–‐round.”


  2. Thank you Lisa! Your article made me do a bit of thinking too and here is what I came up with.
    Twin Peaks Roundup Death Statistics:
    (BLM FOIA and online information)
    Gathered 1799 WH&B
    Released 59
    Removed 1740
    Plus BLM admitted gather related deaths =15 (& how many unknown died on the range or died and were “taken to town” before anyone could see them during the roundup?)
    Out of the 1740 WH&B removed 92 are now reported dead in short-term holding (this would be only about nine months after roundup = over 5% [annual over 7%]
    Plus, out of the 1740 WH&B removed 490 have been sent to long-term holding and how many of those are dead? (especially considering this past extreme Midwest winter & because most sent are older animals)
    Plus out of the 1740 gathered 156 have been sold or adopted and how many of those are dead?
    So out of the 1814 WH&B that were chased by the helicopter last summer, I figure 117 are known dead within the first nine months plus the 156 sold/adopted with unknown survival rate and the 490 sent to long-term holding with unknown survival rate.
    My guess is that one out of every ten WH&B that were chased by the helicopter last year at Twin Peak is dead today – only nine months later.
    So perhaps we should ask ourselves out of the 1814 chased by the helicopter at Twin Peaks lat summer … how many are still alive? And out of those that are still alive – most have no real “life” … it takes more than a bale of hay for a wild horse to have a true wild horse life that they deserve.
    PUT THEM ALL BACK ON THEIR HOME RANGE … and then learn how to “manage” our WH&B on their range where they have a legal right to live – this can be done by using true facts, scientific knowledge, common sense and honesty.


    • One thing we learn about removing these horses, and trauma, and winter is- the horses become so compromised as to be fragile. We have been watching as BLM has sped up removal and processing time. The horses in winter have it so hard. They die wherever they are taken because they are captive wild animals. Most live but all suffer. We all think about death and the horses. It’s unavoidable.


  3. Lisa, You are spot on!!! Who exactly in BLM figures these numbers and publishes them. I would like to talk to them to see how they come up with the numbers. As you know “we” have been disputing them. Do you have the answer to this question?


  4. A wild horse in a pen is no longer “wild”–it is captive. I viewed the BLM mustangs- for- adoption online page– animals trained by prisoners– those men sitting on the backs of –in my opinion–angry horses. While adoption may be better than Holding, what would a captive horse say? Give me land—you all know the song–don’t fence me in. Well Congress gave those horses land…. and BLM took it away. How sad to have death statistics on roundups and holding, and transport and food changes–when all we want is WILD HORSES WILD. When all the horses want is to be those wild horses as designated in the 1971 WFRH&B Act. They broke no law.


  5. Us perfect humans are never happy unless we killing other living creatures after all G-D did give us total exclusivety to this planet,look at the great job we are doing.


  6. Thanks, again. This is very thought provoking and I’ve posted it on FB to help educate others about what is happening to our wild ones and how we might change our thinking about it. The moral issue has not been dealt with much so I’m glad you’re writing about it. You do good work, R.T.


  7. The USA stats on survival is interesting. I can see why the USA has thousands of free roaming mustangs; or used to; no preditors; except for the BLM.. Our Canadian horses have a maybe 5% survival rate as foals and a little better survival rate as adults during the summer but come the deep snow and a pack of wolves; some smaller herds are totally annilated by spring.. And there is no idea for a figure of what the cougars are taking..all year round.Probably not as bad because the cougar prefers elk and deer…But now that Alberta’s wild horses are annilated down to only a scattering of 5-600 head total;And this is sad when you compare our wild areas to even some of your states in size.In 1965 our wildess were counted at being 26,000; today’s figures are totally in acurate as being at 600 in reality it is probabably even lower than that..I am told that there has been a few people who have rode the areas that several herds a day could be seen and they rode for a week and never even found any fresh sign or tracks.Natural predation is going to wipe the last of them out in just a few short years.And the few that the wolves have missed ; man is rounding up; even as this is being typed..For the bounty of 500$ a adult and then most going to the meat plants.. 95% profits going to the meat plant..Not much for overhead costs in a wild horse.. Then the goverment will be putting into full force, the job of cleaning out the wolves and cougars because they will and are already eating the cattlemans profits. Haaaaaaa..Karma is great..Sadly the wolves and the cougars will be the losers also in this world of MAN is Mother nature..The balances were always perfect with the wildhorses and preditors in our mountain foothills of the Rockies..The cows are what are destroying it..But with thousands of prime beef in these areas the cattleman can the wolves.. because they were the ones who started it all .. cause the wild horse was eating THEIR leased grass..Nothing can be done for our wild horses now even if the law started protecting them .. Inbreeding will totaly finish them genetically but the wolves will wipe them out first..And the Canadian people are to blame.. not enough stood up to the goverment and said stop the slaughter.. hopefully the USA people can stand up together and rally to stop the slaughter in the USA before it’s too late for the Mustangs..And the TOO LATE is drawing in to being reality real fast…EH ??


    ASPCA opposes bill that would deny water to Nevada mustangs
    May 11, 2011 by admin • Leave a Comment
    By Frank X Mullen, Reno Gazette Journal
    May 10, 2011
    Read online here.
    The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has joined wild horse advocates in opposition to an Assembly bill that they say would deny access to water for wild horses and burros in the state.
    AB-329 would change the definition of “wildlife” in state water rights laws to specifically exclude wild horses and burros but include all other animals, birds and fish, “found naturally in a wild state, whether indigenous to Nevada or not and whether raised in captivity or not,” according to the bill.


  9. Have always loved the horse and in the past few days I have learned more about the terrible way the BLM treats these wonderful animals. I work with horses doing equine body work hoping to give all of them a better life and to teach their owners how to keep them supple and strong. I was fortunate to work on a mustang this past week in Idaho and learned much from her new adopted owner. It has opened my eyes to a world that needs all of us to enter and fight for these beautiful wild animals. They belong free and only we the humans can help them stay that way. I will be doing what I can to do my share to keep them free.


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