The American West in its sprawling grandeur is home to some of the world’s most diverse and abundant wildlife populations. For centuries, the region’s complex ecosystems balanced a delicate and constantly evolving equilibrium—a sine wave harmony that naturally managed the remarkable breadth of species and resources, both at a micro and macro level. Even now, seemingly small impacts to any given part of the environment can have ripple effects across the entire system.
Over the past two hundred years, as domestic settlement has pushed further into once untouched land, disruptions to the West’s ecological balance have been coming faster. Climate change realities have put this phenomenon into stark relief on the global stage, and from the national to local levels, conservation efforts have strived to find a fulcrum between societal growth and nature. But not without controversy. Competing ideologies, interests and politics have produced as much disagreement as concord over land and water management, development and preservation measures.
This debate has taken a tangible form on the wilderness pastures across the American West. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees some 31.2 million acres of public lands, which support a wealth of wildlife and uses. For centuries, wild free-range mustangs – which were introduced in North America by European explorers to Mexico in the 1500s – have roamed these lands. These herds originated from domesticated horses that escaped and steadily proliferated across North America.
Early ranchers often considered wild horses a nuisance to their operations. The herds quickly ate up land they, the ranchers, needed to raise cattle and sheep. Some captured mustangs off the range and broke them for ranch use. Others simple shot or ran them off. Although data did not become available until the mid-1900s, accounts squarely confirm that mustang populations began to steadily decline as commercial ranching grew.
By the 1930s, wild horses lived nearly exclusively on land administered by the General Land Office and National Forest rangeland. Herd management was left mostly to ranchers with a sort of unspoken fence-out policy. In 1934, the Taylor Grazing Act established the U.S. Grazing Service, which was tasked with managing livestock on public land, including free-range horses. The agency charged ranchers a per-head fee to graze livestock and, because wild horse herds limited the amount of domesticated stock the land could support, the organization began actively removing mustangs.
When the Taylor Grazing Act was signed into law, estimates put the number of wild horses in the U.S. between 50,000 and 150,000. By the 1950s, the population had been reduced to about 25,000. Horses were run to exhaustion by helicopters and airplanes, poisoned at watering holes and frequently shot. It was not uncommon to encounter carcasses left on public lands.
The issue came to a head after advocates began to voice concerns about the cruel gathering techniques. In 1971 President Richard Nixon signed the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act, which declared free-range horses “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” The law stipulated that the BLM – which was established by the consolidation of the General Land Office and U.S. Grazing Service in 1946 – and U.S. Forest Service have a responsibility to manage and protect herds in their respective jurisdictions.
Over the nearly 50 years since, the BLM has played a chief role in managing wild mustang populations. The agency notes that in the absence of proper predators – like wolves and bears, whose populations and geographies have been impacted by development – wild horse populations can grow by as much as 20 percent annually, doubling in four to five years. That has created a sizeable task for federal authorities.
The BLM has implemented measures to reduce the over-population, including fertility controls in certain herds. The most successful, and widely employed, method, however, has been rounding up the horses into BLM-managed facilities and privately leased pastures. But, as it did in the 1950s, this control is has come under scrutiny. The process is still generally conducted via aircraft, which animal rights groups contend is inhumane. Corrals and pastures the horses are moved to are often high-density, which draws similar criticism.
Herd management has had its successes. Wild horse populations have moved closer to Appropriate Management Levels (AML) – the size that the land can reasonably support – and with less fluctuation. But heightened attention to management practices, particularly stigmas around euthanasia, has kept mustang numbers well above what the land can sustain.
That reality has put a renewed focus on management policies. Much of the debate hinges on how these wild horses are categorized. And, As Ben Masters, producer of the documentary Unbranded, notes, how these horses are now classified depends on who you ask—a native species, an invasive pest or feral livestock.
Those descriptors largely shape positions of how wild horses should be handled. Those who posit the animals are native species generally take a preservation standpoint, which argues that the environment should determine population density. Others argue that it is inhumane not to manage herds because the land simply cannot support current herd sizes, which results in starvation and malnutrition. Others still argue that wild horses plunder public lands, leaving it unusable for other purposes, like livestock grazing and certain recreation. These groups urge authorities to take a more aggressive approach to managing herds.
Regardless of where one stands on the issue, it is clear that current wild horse populations are in excess of what’s supported by the land—and that management practices put a significant burden on authorities tasked with the job.
Once removed from public lands, the BLM is responsible for caring to the horses. Corralled horses cost $5 per animal per day; off-range pastured horses cost the agency $2 per day per animal. The cost of care is $50,000 over the life of an animal on average, according to the BLM. That means the BLM will spend more than $1 billion to care for and feed wild horses over the remainder of their lives at current population sizes.
Today, the BLM estimates there are as many as 88,000 wild horses on public rangeland, which includes 72,000 horses and more than 16,000 burros. That count exceeds the Appropriate Management Level (AML) by 61,000. The wild horse population is about three times above sustainability levels, according to BLM calculations.
Numerous organizations have stepped in to offer pragmatic solutions to control wild horse populations—namely, to promote adoption rates. The BLM regularly sells mustangs to trainers, ranchers and others who can give the animals a home. Since 1971, more than 235,000 wild horses and burros have been adopted. But annual adoptions have fallen from a high of 8,000 per year to about 2,500 per year currently due to societal changes and stricter regulations.
The situation, in which horses are being removed from public rangeland out of necessity, has begun to strain resources. In 2016, approximately 13,500 wild horses and burros were living in feedlot-type short-term holding pens and another 31,500 in long-term pastures. That same year, a report by the U.S. Inspector General noted that the “BLM has no strategic plan to manage wild horse and burro populations.”
Like countless conservation issues, there are no easy answers to the United States’ free-range mustang dilemma. Individuals can make a difference by supporting organizations that are working hard to find these animals caring, long-term homes.