Horse News

The ugly truth about the wild horse issue

By Erik Molvar as published on the Sierra Nevada Ally
“The Nevada legislature is debating a resolution to fast-track the removal of wild horses from public lands…”


The Nevada legislature is debating a resolution to fast-track the removal of wild horses from public lands. Once again, the livestock industry is painting wild horses into the role of a convenient scapegoat for land health deterioration. Just like any large herbivore, high concentrations of wild horses can damage the range, but they are rarely permitted to get that numerous. Instead, the bulk of the damage on public lands comes from domestic livestock that massively outnumber the equids. Overheated rhetoric notwithstanding, this debate has never been about healthy lands or the welfare of wildlife. It’s about moving animals that compete with commercial livestock off the range.

The wild horse issue has become a three-ring circus. A public lands extremist ascended to the head of the Bureau of Land Management and proclaimed wild horses “an existential threat.” Leading newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post have published lengthy articles uncritically promoting fake-news industry narratives, without discernible fact-checking. Even the Wildlife Society – an organization supposedly dedicated to the advancement of impartial science – commissioned a propaganda documentary devoid of science and dripping with hyperbole and emotional exaggerations.

According to published science, there were two to seven million wild horses when the first Euro-American explorers came to the West. The herds roamed alongside bison, elk, pronghorn, and mule deer. White colonization brought ecological disaster within decades. The Indigenous peoples who had lived alongside abundant wildlife from time immemorial were killed or driven to reservations, and every single species of large herbivore was teetering on the brink of extinction. Audubon’s bighorn sheep, once common on the Plains, did disappear forever. It was the dawn of the ranching custom and culture, and it was a bloody beginning.

As white immigrants staked property claims (some of them legal), they strung barbed wire to keep everyone else out, monopolized springs and rivers to control surrounding arid lands, grazed their livestock for free on federal lands, and declared themselves royalty. Wild horses were just another commodity to be exploited for profit, rounded up by “mustangers” and shipped by rail to slaughterhouses. Most ended up in pet food or chicken feed. In 1971, Congress passed the Wild and Free-ranging Horses and Burros Act (“Wild Horse and Burro Act,” for short). This landmark law ended commercial trade and provided that only federal agencies could round up wild horses, set up adoption programs, and forbade the killing of wild mustangs, either on the range or after their capture. The law designated 53 million acres as Herd Management Areas (HMAs) for wild horses, areas where horse numbers are required to be limited to levels compatible with “a thriving natural ecological balance,” supporting “all wildlife species which inhabit such lands, particularly endangered wildlife species.”

The Wild Horse and Burro Act enabled a multi-million-dollar industry that grew up around helicopter-driven roundups, growing in size and profits in the grand tradition of American capitalism. To appease the ranchers and fund the roundup industry, the BLM set allowable wild horse populations at unsustainably low levels, re-set many HMA population targets to zero, and started aggressively taking horses off the range.

This led to public controversy and a long series of lawsuits, with federal agencies regularly on the losing end. The agencies ultimately decided to try brokering consensus through a collaborative process. The Bureau assembled a roomful of wild horse opponents, and two groups were picked to represent wild horse interests – Return to Freedom and Humane Society of the United States. They failed. In exchange for assurances that wild horses would not be killed (an outcome already guaranteed by law), the ranchers got their program of aggressive roundups that would turn public lands designated as HMAs for wild horses into the province of cattle and sheep. Wild horses got sold out, and the livestock interests were put in the driver’s seat. They called it “The Path Forward.”

Ironically, while wild horse populations are routinely reduced in the name of a “thriving natural ecological balance,” no such legal requirement applies to livestock. After agencies manage wild horse populations downward, they often sneak cattle or sheep numbers upward. The agency is simply swapping commercial livestock for non-commercial horses.

For the taxpayers, the absurdity is palpable. Wild horse populations decline, but land health problems persist. We spend tens of millions on roundups and holding facilities, but few horses are adopted, and the vast majority go into long-term pasture at taxpayer expense. Our government removes free-ranging horses from public lands – where private livestock grazing is valued at $1.35 per animal per month – and deports them to private lands where they charge as much as $60 a month, per horse. This outcome shifts cattle off of well-watered, productive pasturelands in the Midwest more-suited to livestock, while boosting cattle numbers in the arid West where they are ecological misfits and do tremendous damage to fragile lands, streams, and ecosystems.

Wild horses are just one more notch in the livestock industry’s campaign of Manifest Destiny, to tame the wilderness, dominate and subdue nature, and make the public lands profitable for themselves. It’s time to abandon today’s livestock-driven approach to wild horses, get the political agendas out of the way, and embark upon a science-driven approach. The Wild Horse and Burro Act already provides a sound framework for ecologically sustainable solutions. If only federal agencies would obey the law, and start reining in the ecological abuses of the livestock industry for a change.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring wildlife and watersheds across the American West.

13 replies »

  1. As near as I can tell The Wildlife Society is a fake conservationist, ecologist organization. It elaborately paints itself as a ‘scientific’ organization dedicated to conservation but is in fact a front for anti-wildlife, anti-environment interests. These days one cannot simply accept everything printed or posted that is out there.

    There are more than one anti-animal organizations that gleefully advance the interests of anti-animal lobbyists who promote livestock and fossil fuel interests to Congress.

    But nobody ever gives a good gdam what I post here, it’s like a vacuum. I have never had ONE single interaction on this blog post and I question whether anyone EVER reads it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sure your comments are read – by me and others. And its not people here who dont give a dam – its the government agencies and the politicians who make the laws AND far too much of the public who is unaware – some that dont know there ARE wild horses – some who believe the propaganda spewed by the livestock lobby – and some just too busy with their lives to pay attention. There are lots of good caring people who have worked for years to stop the roundups & paths to slaughter. BUT until ALL of us pay attention and, most importantly, speak truth to power (or politicians) the laws wont get changed & the Wild Horse & Burro Act wont be followed the way it should have been from the very beginning.
      Amanda, go back and look at the posts – RTs & the comments – Read Carol Walker’s blog Wild Hoofbeats or Ginger Kathren’s Cloud site – these are people who are and have been working FOR wild horses & burros for years. Until there is enough public groundswell (as there was in the beginning of this fight) things wont change. To be honest, interactions on this blog or other blogs wont change things – when there are enough comments & calls to the politicians? Maybe. But people have to COMPLAIN in order to make a change and make OTHER people aware!
      And yeah – The Wildlife Society and Audubon are not speaking up for wild horses. Sadly, the (I believe) deputy BLM director who was just put in place worked at both of these. Hopefully Deb Haaland, the DOI Secretary, will have more influence regarding wild horses.


    • Hi Amanda, just wanted to give you one reply at least — and point out that I’ve posted here for years now in an effort to support a better dialogue all around that will help our wild horses, and regularly avoided the hyperbole, favoring instead looking for better and newer strategies that might shift the broken and corrupt system our wild ones are innocently enmeshed in. However, it seems to lead to nothing and sadly, this site isn’t kept as current as it once was so I am visiting less often. I am very pleased to see Erik stepping up here though, met him years ago and have sent him information on wild horse issues over the years.

      That said, I don’t really see any new proposal here other than to follow the existing laws, which hasn’t worked for 50 years now. The program needs a complete overhaul, or the BLM and USFS need to be relieved of these duties (and budgets) and another entity formed that will be required to prioritize the sustainable management of what’s left of our wild horses and burros, as wild animals, in the wild.

      Liked by 1 person

    • i agree with taking away the responsibilities from the blm and usfs. They don’t accomplish anything but putting money on their pockets. They don’t have compassion for the horses or any other animal.. They are to manage, but don’t know how. The BLM has been caught lieing, killing, selling out to kill buyers. They sell out the land in our counties, lease out. Where does most of the money go their. It doesn’t benefit anyone but them. Can’t stand either one. I could go on but you get the drift.
      I have a question: With the power of all the horse and animal organizations, why can’t they put stop to a lot of this? It seems to me, the power is in numbers. By working by yourself, it accomplishes nothing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hey I wasn’t aware of that site, thanks! Here’s one that I think covers multiple states and shows the most current BLM data, in this case for Colorado. This is copied from correspondence from the BLM:

        Here is the URL to the Colorado Specific Interactive Map:

        Then once it opens, click on the “Add Data button” in the upper right corner:

        Then make sure you are on the “Search” tab, then type in “horse management area” area in the search bar, it should come up with a list of layers, click “add” under the layer titled ”
        BLM Colorado Wild Horse Burro Herd Management Areas

        Then you can also search for allotments in the same way to add those to your map:
        try searching for “colorado allotments” and they should come up:

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks so much, Icy. Such tiny little pieces of land compared to the rest PLUS having to share it with livestock! Will hang on to that & look more.


    • And the grazing allotments? I knew the whole “program” was wrong to put it mildly. But showing them after looking at the HMAs? I have never seen the full picture before. How many people have, I wonder. (other than yourself & likely GG)


Care to make a comment?

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.