Dan Harrison has seen it more times than he cares to detail.
“A family moves out to the country, buys a place with some acres, and decides they need a horse,” said Harrison. “Now, I agree with that. Everybody needs a horse.” Harrison speaks with an easy drawl and wears a felt cowboy hat, except in the hottest months, when he switches to a straw lid. “But horses are expensive. Hell, hay is expensive. It costs $18 a square bale by the time it gets to the local feedstore. When these folks realize they can’t afford to feed a horse, they’re in a bind. They can’t sell it for anywhere near what they bought it for, so they turn it loose because they don’t know what else to do.”
Harrison, who lives near northeastern California’s Modoc National Forest, has seen firsthand the consequences of this horse-release epidemic. The Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory, which was stocked originally by descendants of frontier-era wild horses that had no owners, brands, or pedigree, is a chunk of public land that’s supposed to carry a maximum of 402 head. But last year’s census indicated the territory holds some 4,000 horses, and Harrison said few of them are related to those noble steeds of colonial California.
“I have a mare that I’ve ridden for years, and she’s been a great horse,” said Harrison, who also runs a hunting outfit in Colorado. “But the way the rules read now, when she wears out, I could take that mare out to the forest, pull her shoes off, and the minute my halter leaves her head, she’s classified as a wild horse. I don’t think that’s how these wild-horse ranges were intended, but that’s one reason why we’re in the mess we’re in.”
The “mess” that Harrison refers to is the appalling number of wild horses on public rangeland around the West. Whether the number has been supplemented by releases of recently domesticated horses and ponies is disputable, but what’s clear is that the current population far exceeds the carrying capacity of the habitat across the arid Great Basin states of Nevada, Oregon, California, and Utah. Free-ranging horses have few predators, so even without supplemental releases, their population can double every few years.
“The BLM is supposed to manage horses according to what’s called AML or Appropriate Management Level,” said Andy Treharne, senior director for federal land policy for the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. “But the agency has a hard time even keeping its website updated because horse populations are growing so fast.”
Out on the range, overpopulation looks like you think it would—only worse. Emaciated horses, ribby mares with wither-thin foals at their side, nibble at shadows of grass. Skeletons of starved horses scatter the bare ground. Dull-eyed survivors gather around water sources, shallow in the wet season and vanishingly scarce the rest of the year. In this diminished state, they are hardly the icons of the American West that fires the public’s imagination and are fueled by mass-media fantasies, such as the feel-good movies Hidalgo and Spirit.
A snapshot of the nation’s wild-horse range illustrates the dilemma. Across the 10 states in the West that have designated wild horse and burro herds, the equine population was 88,090 in 2018, according to BLM surveys. The maximum AML is 26,690, which means that current populations are over three times the recom-mended balance. Nevada has, by far, the nation’s largest population of wild horses (47,468) and burros (4,187). Those numbers are four times the sustainable population.
So why are numbers of these purportedly wild, free-ranging animals so out of balance not only with their habitat, but also with national management objectives? After all, if a state wildlife agency allowed elk or deer populations to skyrocket, with no effective means to control them, they’d be short-stopped by legislators or environmental advocates worried about landscape health.
But the politics of wild horses do not conform to any logical metric. That’s the first lesson you learn when you try to unwind the upside-down management of this iconic animal.
“I scratch my head when it comes to wild horses,” said Treharne. “There’s an emotional connection, whether real or perceived, between horses and people. You can’t pretend that they can be managed as populations. They’re ultimately considered as individuals by people who give them names and personalities. The best comparison I have is how we deal—or don’t deal—with feral cats. It’s staggering how detrimental feral cats are to songbirds and small-game populations. But you can’t simply say we have to get rid of them all. People would wig out. So, we sort of agree to make exceptions. The thing with horses is that we have made exceptions for decades, and now it’s the horses that are paying the price.” The “price” is mass starvation and inhumane conditions.
There may be a shortage of real estate to contain horses, and there is certainly a shortage of feed and water. But there’s no shortage of emotionally invested advocates who hang on every management action the BLM makes with the nation’s wild-horse herd. There are websites devoted to monitoring “roundups” or the gathering of horses to thin numbers, either by selling them or offering them for adoption. Any time a helicopter is used in a roundup, the action is criticized as inhumane by advocates.
This relentless advocacy on behalf of wild horses and burros is why the BLM’s best management tool is relatively ineffective. The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 is legislation that was passed to ensure wild equines were not removed from public land to make room for domestic livestock or energy development. The legislation specifically identified various management tools the agency could use to curtail populations, including euthanasia, sterilization, and what is called “sale without limitation,” which is assumed to mean selling wild horses to the slaughter trade.
Congress has intruded into wild-horse management.
The BLM’s 2018 report to Congress notes that “congressional appropriation riders prohibit the BLM from using all the authorities available in the Act. Specifically, Congress blocks the sale of wild horses and burros without limitation and has limited the use of euthanasia.”
Without the availability of those tools, the BLM is essentially in the adoption business, and if horses aren’t adopted, the agency is required to care for them for the remainder of their lives. “The cost of holding and caring for these animals off-range has increased substantially in recent years and remains the largest component of the program’s budget.”
In 2017, the BLM spent nearly 60 percent of its $81 million budget on the care of horses and burros removed from the range. The agency figures that’s $48,000 for a single unadopted horse over its lifetime. Meanwhile, the BLM has a deferred maintenance backlog of nearly $1 billion.
One way to turn around this deficit is to sell hunting tags for wild horses.
“I mean, can you imagine how much a European hunter would spend to come and hunt a wild mustang?” said Harrison. “Horses could be our next trophy species. They could be carefully managed through regulated hunting, same as we do now for elk or wild sheep.”
But Treharne notes that if agency euthanasia is considered a “toxic” topic, hunting horses isn’t considered in even the furthest galaxies of management options. At least for now.
The greatest conservation focus in the Great Basin over the last decade has been sage grouse and restoring populations of this iconic Western bird in order to keep it from being declared a federally endangered species. Billions of dollars have been invested in studying sage grouse and in managing landscapes for their benefit. Human activity across millions of acres of public rangeland has been curtailed so that sage grouse might thrive or, at the least, not continue to disappear.
But one occupant of the same landscape hasn’t changed much of its behavior. That’s the wild horse of the purple sage. Only horses don’t use every acre of BLM land the same, and they don’t have much taste for sagebrush, purple or otherwise. They tend to concentrate in riparian areas, often the only water for many miles, and they don’t leave. Their tendency to trash streams and sully springs has affected habitat for native trout, desert sheep, pronghorn antelope, and even sage grouse, which is dependent on riparian areas for much of the summer.
“If I can tell sportsmen one thing about wild horses, it’s that they are taking carrying capacity away from deer, elk, antelope, and all the native wildlife species that state agencies—and sportsmen—have spent so much time and money restoring,” said Treharne. “States have management authority for most wildlife within their boundaries, whether they exist on federal land or not. But here’s this population of animal that’s bound not by state but by federal statutes. And there’s very little management that’s going on.”
Treharne thinks the way forward lies within the welfare of the horses and burros themselves.
“There are very few people who can look at the current situation and tell me it’s in the best interests of the wild horses,” he said. “They’re suffering. They’re dying. It’s not a pretty picture.”
Harrison agrees, but he says the tendency of horse advocates is to point blame elsewhere.
“These wild horses can look bad,” said Harrison. “Their hip bones are showing. They almost look like a CWD deer. The horse advocates see that and blame the rancher for overgrazing his cows. They’ve lost the idea of multiple-use management.”
But as a horseman, Harrison winces when he sees these wild horses and burros suffer.
“It’s not their fault that they’re in this bind,” Harrison said of the wild herds. “We’ve let them suffer. Now it’s on us to figure out a way to keep some of them on the land. But in order to do that, we can’t keep all of them.”