Horse News

How to fix federal mismanagement of California’s wild horse population

By Suzanne Roy Special to The Sacramento Bee

Protecting wild horses from slaughter is not a romantic notion but a common desire shared by 80% of Americans who value these animals as important symbols for our nation.

Real solutions exist for protecting these national icons in accordance with federal law and the wishes of the majority. The narrative depicted by reporter Ryan Sabalow in the story titled “California’s majestic wild horses trapped in no-win fight for survival,” is simply false.

Here in California, the wild horses of the Devil’s Garden Territory in the Modoc National Forest are part of our heritage and history. Thousands of Californians ― including Senator Dianne Feinstein, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, 27 members of Congress and dozens of state legislators ― spoke up for their protection. State and federal legislation was passed to protect these animals from slaughter. These efforts are driven not by emotion but by science and economics.

Our understanding of the complexity of horses and their needs is more sophisticated now than ever before. They are not indifferent to the suffering of their herd mates. They’re highly social animals who display evidence of emotion, trauma and altruism. Yet the government uses the most outdated, inhumane and expensive method of managing wild horses: helicopter roundups.

Since 2016, the Forest Service has conducted four helicopter roundups of Devil’s Garden horses resulting in at least 94 deaths. Causes include crashing into corral gates and breaking their necks and limbs, being trampled in pens, complications from castration surgery and premature births. In 2017, 25 of the 28 foals born to captured mares died from antibiotic-induced colitis at federal holding corrals in Susanville. In 2020, two foals were euthanized after being born prematurely to recently-captured mares.

The roundups deadly, and they’re also a failed management strategy. The National Academy of Sciences in its 2013 report on the Bureau of Land Management’s wild horse and burro program declared the “business as usual practice” of roundups and removals are “expensive and unproductive” and actually facilitate “high rates of population growth.” No wonder the Devil’s Garden herd is expanding.

In Nevada’s Virginia Range, just east of Reno, an American Wild Horse Campaign fertility control program administered 3,000 PZP vaccine treatments to mares in less than two years. It’s the largest free-roaming horse fertility control program in the world. The method is 97% effective in preventing pregnancy. AWHC offered to fund and implement a pilot fertility control program on Devil’s Garden in 2018. The Forest Service rejected the offer.

What’s standing in the way of properly managing the Devil’s Garden horses? Not unrealistic wild horse advocates. Local ranchers want the public lands where the horses graze for their livestock. Mr. Sabalow tells us that 26,000 cattle graze in the national forest. Only 1,150 wild horses are left after the removal of 506 horses this year. Forest Service policy, heavily influenced by these ranchers, calls for reducing that number to 400 or fewer horses in this 400-square-mile habitat.

The major problem with government-funded studies showing the damage incurred by cattle grazing on public lands: they don’t exist. For both the Forest Service and the BLM, a 2017 U.S. Government Accountability Office report found that “research that evaluates and separates cattle and wildlife impacts from wild horse impacts has not been conducted, and studies on horse grazing effects are needed.” This major finding still holds true today.

Taxpayers are paying for this federal mismanagement. Not only are we subsidizing the livestock grazing on public lands, we’re also paying millions of dollars to round up wild horses and throw them in holding pens, then selling these federally-protected animals off for $1 a piece.

The horses are paying for it with their freedom, their families and their lives.

7 replies »

  1. I think it is terrible how our wild horses are treated. They should be left to roam free and there is plenty of food for both cattle & horses.


  2. Thank you, good article. I believe one way to push back on this issue is to stop buying beef. If you think about it the costs of meat production, both in terms of animal suffering, and the cost to the environment will only grow. The meat industry will pass that cost along to consumers. I grew up eating beef and it was a part of our culture. It was plentiful and relatively inexpensive. I find I dont miss not eating it though.The fast food industry is one major part of this system. It’s like one big machine that keeps creating a need for itself. Yes, dollar hamburgers help feed people who are really poor and dont cook for themselves. But at a community level people can learn to grow their food and get a majority(or all) of their protein needs met by plant based sources. Some people even believe that newer lethal strains of virus are caused by expanding meat industry sources throughout the globe. I dont know about you but it isnt a good trade off. Id rather have wild horse and burros living out their lives in peace as God intended and to avoid global pandemics that kill off our families. I can easily do without beef. I dont need some rancher telling me what to eat.


    • This point is made time and time again, but if you do a little homework you will find that the percentage of American-raised livestock that spend any time on public lands (BLM, USFS) is around 3%. Even if the entire production on public lands were to disappear, it would be unnoticed in the marketplace.

      That said, it is better to direct your energies towards more useful actions if your goal is to change what is happening now. The impacts and costs of grazing subsidized, for-profit livestock on our public lands is well documented here and elsewhere, and is THE primary reason our supposedly proteced and prioritized wild horses and burros are indeed not being well protected from “capture, branding, harassment, or death” as the law mandates. It is a sorry truth that all these illegal actions happen every year, at the hands of those paid by us to protect these animals.

      (interesting that the link to this law from Wikipedia took me to the BLM website, where a banner read “page not found.” Has the law been erased from the BLM website? Out of sight, out of mind?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. PZP is not needed as many of the AMLs are not even genetically viable. PZP destroys natural selection and can cause sterility after several doses. All roundups need to be stopped as they are illegal since Pendley was never apptoved as BLM director. His orders must be canceled.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Eagle roundup is already ongoing. I do wonder how long and IF the new administration will take to attempt to fix this BLM mess. With all the other crap that needs fixing? I think the new DOI Secretary just might change things. Hopefully cleaning out the BLM gets done before they have removed every wild horse out there.
    Icy, we all have been aware that very little of the beef produced comes from public lands, but seems like only people who truly care about our wild horses think that matters. As always, there is much that needs doing and LOTS that needs changing. Has for years.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed. My response was a reply to Amanda’s suggestion to stop buying beef to help wild horses, which is noble but ultimately would prove inconsequential unless as consumers we were allowed to somehow identify beef that was partly raised on public lands.

      That said, one thing we can do is make it clear to our elected Senators and Representatives our support for a better DOI Secretary (Biden has nominated Deb Haaland) and also our insistence on undoing some of the harm that the past administrations have wrought. One can start with your point about ACTING leaders not having authority and thus at least some of their decisions and actions can be reviewed and reversed. Won’t help the dead horses but might save a few who are in the DOI sights right now.

      Liked by 1 person


    Colorado sues Bureau of Land Management over Western Slope management plan from William Perry Pendley

    The state’s argument that Pendley, the BLM’s “acting director,” did not have the authority to approve anything mirrors a federal case in Montana that overturned three resource-management plans.

    Liked by 1 person

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