I grew up with a dozen horses on Colorado’s eastern plains. In winter, I busted hay bales to feed them, and, under a star-strewn sky, chopped holes in iced-over water tanks so the animals could drink. I’ve always believed that the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.

But not all horses are equal, and these days, I question the presence of so many so-called wild horses on our public lands.

Sure, they look great—manes flying, tails outstretched, as the herds gambol across the wide-open spaces. They look great, but unfortunately, those photogenic herds, with their voracious appetites and heavy hooves, endanger native plants, introduce invasive species, hog precious water holes that other mammals need, and continue––endlessly—to multiply. What kind of symbol is this for the American West?

Unlike mule deer, elk or mountain lions, wild horses aren’t really wild. They are feral—turned loose. Perhaps a few rare specimens represent the genetics of Moorish ponies brought over from Spain five centuries ago, but most of today’s wild horses were simply abandoned. Even today, owners continue to release domestic horses onto public lands, especially when the economy turns bad or hay prices rise.

Thanks to the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed in 1971, herds on public lands are protected—as they should be. But what the law never considered was equine fertility. According to a December 2010 report by the Office of the Inspector General, the herd doubles in size every four years, and “each year, the number of wild horses and burros the Bureau of Land Management manages increases, as does the level of public interest and scrutiny.”

That is why today, one of the icons of the West that has long been enshrined in myth is being scientifically re-examined. Three decades after the law was passed, we know a lot more about ecosystem balance and the carrying capacity of animals on public lands. Factor in drought, and ecological conditions on public land are getting desperate.

The places where the animals grazed in 1971 were officially designated by Congress as herd areas. Later, in the 1980s, the Bureau of Land Management determined which of them were suitable for long-term equine management, and these lands are now herd management areas. The problem is sustainability.

The herd management areas cover 32 million acres in 10 Western states with 37,000 animals on the range, but another 30,000 head of feral horses have been shipped to “long-term holding facilities.” You and I as taxpayers foot the bill. Call it donkey welfare.

I’m an environmentalist, but also a pragmatist. We simply have too many feral horses and burros. And it’s getting worse. The horses on the range grow 20 percent by producing new live foals each year—about 7,400 animals—but only 2,500 of them will get adopted. BLM wild horse and burro specialist Jerome Fox explains, “The BLM presently has more than 10,000 excess wild horses on the range, and new foals in 2013 will add 7,400 more. Our current level of adoptions does not begin to address our excess wild horse problem.”

So, by default, we now practice equine birth control. Volunteers shoot mares with contraceptive darts that after a few years lose their potency. Then it’s time to pull the trigger again. For wild-horse lovers, that strategy far exceeds the bruising benefits of helicopter roundups, now called “gathers” by the BLM, which can run animals into dense oak brush or box canyons, and can produce panic and fatigue in horses as they are crowded into corrals. The Office of the Inspector General admits, “The risk that horses or burros will be injured or killed is an unavoidable consequence of gathering. Injuries and broken bones can and do result from the effort to herd, capture, and transport the animals.”

After the gathers, it’s off to not-always-pleasant pastures in Kansas, Oklahoma or South Dakota at a total taxpayer cost for the horse and burro program of $66 million annually and climbing.

It’s time to stop and smell the sagebrush. We need laws that allow federal agencies to sell or auction feral horses and burros to be re-cycled into food products.

Horses inspire devotion. I understand; I’ve placed my head against their warm flanks after currying them down. I love their smell and their soft lips, and the way they blow on an apple before they eat it. I’ve enjoyed the comfort of sitting a saddle knowing that a good horse will find its way home no matter how dark the trail.

I also believe you can have too much of a good thing, and we have too many feral horses on public land.

Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo.

6 replies on “The West Has Too Much of a Good Thing in Wild Horses”

  1. I hope the writer and others will be able to speak up for sanity after the Today Show tomorrow. Although, perhaps the horse slaughter issue might be confusing to some, the main point: is that there are too many horses on the range, and the answer is Not to return the horses in long term holding, and especially that the BLM is not the evil beast so many people want us to believe, and we should be supporting their management efforts, do everything we can to promote the adoptions, continue research on birth control, and work together to preserve the living legacy of America’s Wild Horses and Burros.

  2. Wow where are YOU getting your numbers from? When the WFRHBA was passed in 1971 the horses were allotted some 52 MILLION acres. Now it’s just over 28 MILLION I believe. I know BLM has cut about 1/2 of the acres given the horses.

    The Act was passed 40 years ago and since then it has been twisted upside down and inside out so no one can enforce anything.

    BLM in 2009 said that wild horses reproduce at 20% annually and double every four years. Now they are stating 23%.

    I wonder how these horses kep reproducing at such astounding rates when BLM keeps rounding up THOUSANDS more every year.

    Let me give you an example. From 2003 to 2007 the Pryor Mustangs herd growth rate was stable at zero. The reason? Mountain lions. When BLM management put out more bounties on the cats they were wiped out on the Pryors. The result? Herd growth grew resulting in roundups. They had a perfectly reasonable management practice in place but because MAN wasn’t in charge it was deemed not good enough.

    Cattle outnumber wild horses 50-1 in most areas. Numerous HMA’s have been zeroed out to make room for cattle.

    One of the main differences between a wild horse and a feral horse is this. Wild horses have FEDERAL protection. If a horse is found on tribal lands or private property it becomes feral WITHOUT those same protections.

    You need to do more UNBIASED research on this before reporting again. I recommend RTFitch or Wildhorseeducation for starters. Laura has been to more roundups in the past 2 1/2 yrs than anyone. She sees things that would make you question everything you just wrote.

    So who paid you for this drivel? Ranchers? Wouldn’t surprise me!

  3. WOW … talk about making it up as you go along. The pro-slaughter groups always say how the wild horses and burros are tearing up the land, but what about all the cattle that roam those same lands, don’t they destroy it even more? Selling these animals to slaughter isn’t going to fix the problem, it’s just going to add to the problem because 80% of Americans don’t want the horses and burros slaughtered, even though the BLM has been selling hundreds of mustangs to slaughter for many years. You seem like you have a sliver of love for the horse so why can’t you intelligent people really come up with a better solution to control the herds that you insist are to large? It’s not that the birth control option isn’t a good one but it only last 2 years and then you have to do it all over again … if you have time to run them to death to corral them then why can’t you take the time to dart the mares every two years, without running them into a pen,? it would be time better spent and way less inhumane and less costly over time. All I have to say is quit listening to the Cattle Ranchers and the pro-slaughter fools and listen to American’s hearts and save our wild horses and burros.

  4. This article is such a piece of fiction, and so full of errors, I get tired just thinking about writing my reply. I shall return with the true facts when I’m in the mood to debunk the propaganda.

    Until then, please keep in mind that millions of private cattle and sheep, enjoy subsidized Welfare Grazing at taxpayers’ expense on our public range land, and that the private livestock outnumber our Wild Horses by 50 to 1, and the private livestock costs us hundreds of millions of dollars per year, whilst our Wild Horses cost us very little if left on our public range lands where they belong.

    Thousands of Wild Horses vs. Millions of private cattle and sheep on our range, but you falsely accuse the Wild Horses of being “overpopulated” and “damaging the range.” Ridiculous!. It’s time to stop the Welfare Grazing of private livestock on our public range!

  5. Most ridiculous article I have ever heard! He has placed his head against the horses warm flank?? Is that supposed to make him an authority on wild, yes I said wild, horses. You have feelings for the horses you grew up with, but can slaughter horses with no remorse. We don’t eat horse! They are our companions and work partners. How about using your writing infuence to get BLM to manage them on the range like they should be doing. PZP is helpful, at least it would take less dollars than the enormous amount spent on deadly roundups. Take away the helicopters and spent more time on darting a few mares. At least they can be left on the range that way. How about backing the American people instead of the cattle ranchers.

  6. Without taking up much space I’d like to reiterate the above comments, facts and figures. Andrew Gulliford doesn’t seem to have any and his article is the most disgusting bunch of drivel I’ve had the displeasure of reading in quite some time.

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