The Hard Truth About the West’s Wild Horse Problem

Horses belong in the Desert Southwest where they and their ancestors co-evolved with wildlife and plants over millions of years.

With that said, though, we have a problem. Removing large nomadic grazers as well as most prey and most predators combined with the sincere but misguided prohibition of herd culling has been disastrous to ecosystems — and horses and burros. Defenders of wildlife, including wild horse and burro advocates, must allow effective population management of wild equines, including humane slaughter, to resume.

If all sides of the debate will reject the ideology and fake science of invasive species biology and instead defend biodiversity and holistic management of rangeland and wildlife that incorporates holistic planned grazing of cattle and horses into wildlife management, rangelands will recover much faster than Congressman Stewart predicts.

NOTE: This article was published to the NYTimes.com on December 25, 2017. It was written by Chris Stewart, the Republican congressman from Utah.

We have a wild horse problem — and it’s having a devastating impact on these majestic animals that so many of us love.

I grew up on a farm in Idaho. No one has to show me how to put a saddle on a horse. I respect these powerful animals and consider them emblems of the West. But though we may envision bands of mustangs sprinting through lush fields of tall grasses, we have to realize that the truth is much bleaker.

The federal government’s Wild Horse and Burro Program is broken, leaving thousands of animals to starve. The Bureau of Land Management says that the nearly 27 million acres it manages for wild horses and burros can sustain only about 27,000 animals. This year, the bureau estimates that there were more than 72,000 wild horses on the land, almost 50,000 too many and all fighting to survive.

Making matters worse, wild horses are very fertile; their population increases 20 percent a year, meaning the number of wild horses will double in the next four years. Overgrazing by these horses has also hurt local deer and elk populations. The range could take a generation to recover.

This isn’t just a horse management disaster, it’s a financial disaster too. In addition to the 72,000 horses it oversees on the range, the B.L.M. keeps about 45,000 horses that it has removed from the wild in corrals, off-range pastures and in sanctuaries. Over their lifetime, these horses will cost taxpayers roughly $1 billion overall, according to the B.L.M. That’s $1 billion we could otherwise spend on defense, education, job training or any other worthy cause.

But the alternative for these horses is starving in the wild. For example, in 2015, the B.L.M. employees were dispatched to a desert in Nevada outside of Las Vegas to round up about 200 wild horses that were reported to be starving to death. Federal land managers had determined that the 100,000-acre expanse where these horses were grazing produced only enough grasses and water to sustain 70 horses.

Bureau employees discovered nearly 500 horses. They had pounded their range to powder; the desert grasses that remained had been eaten to the nubs. Nearly 30 were in such poor condition they had to be euthanized, and many others were on the brink of death.

How can anyone consider this acceptable?

Although the finger is routinely pointed at the B.L.M. for mismanagement, the bulk of the blame lies with shortsighted decision-making by misinformed but well-meaning members of Congress.

Congress had once supported laws that allowed for proper management of these animals. Horses in excess of what the land could sustain were to be captured, put up for adoption, sold without restriction — including to slaughterhouses, which the B.L.M. does not do as a matter of policy — and as a last resort, humanely euthanized. The program wasn’t perfect, but the B.L.M. was able to keep the herds’ numbers in check while ensuring that the ranges were viable and healthy year after year.

But since 2010, Congress has used annual appropriations acts to significantly restrict the ability of the B.L.M. to sell or euthanize horses. And while in the early 2000s people were willing to adopt 8,000 horses a year, more recently that number has dropped to 2,500, possibly because of the economy.

Some horse advocates urge expanded use of birth control to keep horse populations in check. Birth control is part of the solution, but it’s not a panacea. The most humane methods require mares to be treated once a year. That’s feasible in herds that roam small areas, such as those on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, but herds in the West are scattered over thousands of acres that equal the land mass of Mississippi.

What’s more, a mare can’t already be pregnant at the time of treatment. That’s a tall order given that pregnancy rates tend to be high at any given point in the year. Is it any wonder why the B.L.M. is able to treat a mere 1,000 mares each year in the West?

I love horses and view them the way most people view their pet dogs. But witnessing our nation’s wild horses and burros starve to death and overrun the range must compel us to act. This year, the House Appropriations Committee approved my proposal to remove language from the Interior Department’s budget that bars the B.L.M. from euthanizing captured healthy horses it is holding. The House should ratify this action when it votes on the budget in January.

I understand that some will recoil from this approach. But anyone who really cares about these majestic animals must understand that other efforts have failed to curb their exploding population and that culling these herds to numbers the land can sustain is the best way to prevent further suffering and death.

Posted by Chris Gill

Ranching, wildlife management, finance, oil & gas, real estate development and management.

  1. Not that Mr. Stewart will actually see this comment, but I’m posting anyway. Has he gotten out of his plush office in DC or in his home state & actually gone out on the ranges that he’s speaking about in the West to view these so-called starving horses? I have lived in the area of the rangeland that the horses use to roam. My horses have also lived on the same grasses that the mustang/burros/feral/wild horses roam on.

    Some of the horses in Nevada near Vegas have had issues, but the majority of it stems from the fact that they are building subdivisions & urban areas in the midst of these horses natural/normal grazing areas. So it throws off where they are to graze, plus they have to contend with crazy drivers zooming from here to there. So, yes….Southern Nevada horses are having issues.

    But they are also being rounded up to only be replaced by cattle or in some cases (such as Nevada) by solar farms bought by foreign countries (like China).

    I lived on 2 ranches (technically 3) in Owhyee County, Idaho that had a band of wild horses that roamed the desert. It was beautiful to see them come running through. Unfortunately they had competition with cattle ranchers who had leased BLM lands. They didn’t/don’t like sharing “their” land, with the natural wildlife around, especially if they can’t be compensated for their “loss” (elk, antelope eating their hay stacks, fields, etc).

    Mr. Stewart needs to actually get out of his office & view the wild horses on their own turf. And stop relying on the ‘bs’ of the BLM to get his “facts” from & go look for himself, talk to the people who are trying to get the BLM to properly manage the herds & the land.

    As a farmer/rancher, his interest is in wiping out the wild herds, so there’s more “grass” for cattle, which is one of the big competitors out here. Most of the ranchers out here would not need to feed/house both cattle & wildlife if they managed their land better.

    Its pretty dry in most areas, especially where the wild herds were, but still…there’s options.

    Reply

    1. Thank you for this observation. Many people in this debate have no personal experience, as you correctly observe.

      The irony to me is that we are debating whether to have cattle, or horses/burros, or other wild animals including deer, pronghorn, and elk. Whereas we should be figuring out how to have all of these animals plus their predators including lions, bobcat, bears and wolves.

      BLM, conservationists, horse advocates, hunters, ranchers and the public all want the same things. The insanity of this debate is that they need one another in order to accomplish their mutual objectives. It is totally unnecessary to have this fight.

      I really appreciate your writing.

      Reply

      1. This reply from Alli:

        Thanks Chris for posting my comment & if its been tweaked, I can’t tell 😉

        And your statement is correct. The problem that I have with wolves in our area is that they are not native to the West, they are implants brought down from Canada by some yahoo in a suite trying to make a name for himself. The Canadian wolves are far more aggressive towards livestock, wildlife & humans then our Native Grey Wolf. The Canadian Wolves are larger, breed more often & have big litters. They don’t fear man, they kill just to kill….whether its humans, pets, livestock or wild life. So, I could actually do without those being around. We have lost people, pets as well as livestock to the Canadian Wolf.

        The grey wolf however…..yeah, if there was some natives still around, I could live with that. We have Mountain lions, bobcat’s around too.

        And you’re right……before man interfered with nature….everything lived together & they thrived as they were supposed to. At our old place our landlord told us about the abundance or the boom of the jackrabbit population, they were out there having hunts to cut them down. Well, it was in connection to the lush grasses they got out there (its pretty much a desert area & the irrigation water hasn’t been high enough to get their full shares in 30-50 years.) Well, because of the burst in rabbit population, the coyote population exploded as well. And I’ve noticed this myself in the 17 years we lived out in the area……thankfully it wasn’t as crazy as what they experienced, cause that was bad.

        We have a few coyotes out here, but they’ve kept themselves out on an empty field behind us & in other neighboring fields, but we have several birds of prey that could easily wipe out our chickens. I did this at our old place too & that was simply to talk to them, tell them thank you for being here, welcome them to stay. They are more then welcome to hunt, but my cats, chickens, baby goats & piglets were off limits. But they could have all the mice, gophers, moles, etc. they wanted.

        So far……so good. With bigger predators….probably not. Outside of the coyotes behaving too, except 1 chicken was killed a bit ago. People (even way back in the beginning of forming this country) were threatened & clueless of how to live in harmony with the life that was here at the time. Everything is off kilter. They (ranchers & government) are trying to quietly, but steadily wipe out the wild buffalo in Yellowstone, claiming they are passing on Brucellosis to their cattle, so they haze some on the border of the park out off their area to round them up & 99.9% of the time they are not even tested. But the elk & deer in the same area have been known to carry/spread that disease & are never/rarely killed that are coming in contact with the cattle. They wonder why the elk population has exploded in the park, until the Canadian wolves came in & decimated the herds & ran a lot off, which they think is a good thing because the area was being overgrazed by them.

        We have so much to learn, but are too busy assuming that things will be better if we remove this animal or that animal….but no one (especially not the scientists) ever looks at the complete picture.

        How all the predators & prey, plants, etc. in the ecosystem worked in harmony prior to our interference. Just like the farming with GMO crops & chemicals….in killing off the “bad” insects that damage the crop, we’re killing off the “good” insects that pollinate the plants that feed us & animals. Do they care? No. They think they can make a robotic bee to replace the real ones. Monsanto has to be sued (& lost) in order for people to believe that their products, like Roundup, causes cancer. No one believed it until the recent victory over Monsanto….yet many have been saying it for years.

        Anyway…..thank you for posting my comment & for replying. And thank you for a lot of the great articles & videos you share. Don’t remember how I stumbled across your site, but I’m glad I did.

        Alli

        To which I replied:

        Thanks Alli.

        I think we are in general agreement about thinking of the systems as ‘wholes’. That is what then term ‘holistic’ means.

        Regarding wolves, I agree they are very dangerous. Take a look at this post, and my remarks, and read what Valerius Geist has to say. http://circleranchtx.com/wolves-attack-wisconsin-with-washingtons-help/

        And yet, we NEED all the predators, all the prey species and the Keystone grazers which in the absence of bison are cattle by default. Or else the systems will not support much of anything.

        My friend Alan Savory ranches in Zimbabwe, alongside elephant and lions. Their methods work for the communities that use them. If Third World native villagers can figure it out – ranching in coexistence with dangerous predators – so can the world’s richest and most technologically-advanced country. The spirituality that your comments reflect must be part of what guides this, in my opinion.

        Thank you again.

        Reply

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