The U.S. government plans to capture more wild horses on federal lands this year than ever before, drawing sharp criticism from mustang advocates who mistakenly hoped the Biden administration would curtail widespread gathers of thousands of horses annually across the American West.
Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning, known as an ally of conservationists on several public land fronts when she was appointed in the fall, says the agency plans to permanently remove at least 19,000 horses and burros this year.
That’s 70% more than the previous high a year ago.
Critics say it’s a continuation of a decades-old policy that kowtows to ranchers who don’t want horses competing with their cattle and sheep for limited forage on agency rangeland in 10 states.
In Nevada, home to about half the 86,000 horses roaming federal lands, three groups have filed a lawsuit challenging what they say is the illegal, inhumane roundup of more than 2,000 horses that’s already underway near the Utah line.
Of the hundreds gathered so far, 11 have died, according to the agency’s website.
At least one death was a colt that continued to be pursued by a low-flying helicopter driving the herd toward a holding pen even though it had a “clearly broken” leg, according to the lawsuit. It says the colt suffered for at least 29 minutes before it was euthanized.
The agency’s 2022 strategy includes treating at least 2,300 animals with fertility control and releasing them back to public lands — an approach supported by some but not all horse advocates — to stem the growth of herds that otherwise double about every five years. That’s nearly double the previous high of 1,160 in 2021, the bureau said.
The agency acknowledges that, due partly to a sharp decline in demand for captured horses offered for public adoption over the past 10 years, it has been left in “the unsustainable position of gathering excess horses while its holding costs spiral upward.”
The lawsuit says the environmental assessment the bureau approved in May for the Nevada roundup described plans for a series of “phased gathers to remove excess animals” over a 10-year period, not “at once.”