Back to Stories

The Complex and Confounding Task of Wrangling America’s Wild Horses

As management agencies wrangle with wild horse management, advocates, nonprofits and the general public are pushing back.

The Bureau of Land Management was tasked with managing wild horses in 1971. At approximately 170 horses, the McCullough Peaks herd east of Cody, Wyoming, needs to be managed down by 41 animals, according to BLM officials. Wild horse advocates say BLM numbers are flawed. Photo by Sandy Sisti
The Bureau of Land Management was tasked with managing wild horses in 1971. At approximately 170 horses, the McCullough Peaks herd east of Cody, Wyoming, needs to be managed down by 41 animals, according to BLM officials. Wild horse advocates say BLM numbers are flawed. Photo by Sandy Sisti
by Brigid Mander

On the night of January 23, a recently captured one-year old wild horse died trying to escape a Bureau of Land Management holding pen in northwestern Wyoming. Wild horse advocates immediately decried the incident, lamenting the loss of the sorrel filly, with her blonde mane and white blaze exactly like her mother and grandmother, and the destruction of this tightly knit family band.

The advocates broadcasted an oft echoed refrain: inhumane tactics, arbitrary, non-science-based population goals, and rangeland management guidelines tilted toward livestock production. Media outlets across the West picked up on the latest salvo of controversy in the long saga of wild horses in North America. The BLM expressed regret, but stated the removal of 41 wild horses from this herd in Wyoming’s McCullough Peaks area must continue. Other stakeholders in the issue, including livestock producers, wildlife managers and ecologists, mostly remained silent.
As of early 2023, the BLM estimated about 83,000 combined horses and wild burros roamed fragmented habitats in 10 western states covering around 27 million acres.
The untimely death of this single wild horse neatly outlines the nearly impossible situation of wild horses and beyond it, the bitter, complex battles over land in the American West. Cattle and sheep ranchers say the horses eat the forage within their grazing permits. Environmentalists say it’s the livestock who have wrought ecological devastation across the West and must be removed from public lands. Wildlife advocates and hunters say cattle and their fences, which exist on public and private land, negatively impact native animals and forage, but concede working ranches and open space are still better for wildlife than roads and subdivisions. And wild horses and cattle both eat forage the native wildlife depends on.

It's a dizzying array of conflicting information and impassioned opinions. Nonetheless, there is no denying that wild horse numbers can grow 20 percent annually, according to the BLM. These equines have few natural predators, particularly in a West where the livestock industry has extirpated large carnivores from their traditional ranges and vociferously opposes reintroduction.

____
The BLM allots the McCullough Peaks herd approximately 120,000 acres in Wyoming. The agency estimates around 83,000 horses and wild burros roam the western U.S. Photo by Heather Hellyer
The BLM allots the McCullough Peaks herd approximately 120,000 acres in Wyoming. The agency estimates around 83,000 horses and wild burros roam the western U.S. Photo by Heather Hellyer
Historically, the McCullough Peaks herd has been a success story: with a relatively small number of wild horses, annual contraceptive darting of mares had kept the population growth to 2 percent over the last decade. Larger herds in vast territories are much more difficult to track and dart with effective contraception, resulting in larger increases in herd size and more controversial, stressful roundups. It is, admittedly, a difficult task, according to an email from the Bureau of Land Management’s public information office in Washington, D.C. “The BLM’s priority is to first reduce overpopulation to protect the long-term health of the herds and public lands," the email read, "followed by a significant increase in the use of fertility control.”

But at McCullough Peaks, BLM and horse advocates have worked well together for the most part, with both parties sharing information on herd health, and collaborating in the tradition of naming the animals, including Kat Ballou, the filly who died in January. Despite the inauspicious start, the gather must continue, according to BLM officials. “This part of McCullough Peaks is not just for wildlife,” said Sarah Beckwith, the BLM public affairs officer for the Wind River/Big Horn Basin District. “It’s a multiuse area also for livestock and recreation. We’re required to manage the horses in a way that keeps the land and vegetation healthy.” 
A National Academy of Sciences report found livestock consumed 70 percent of grazing resources on public lands; wild horses and burros ate less than 5 percent.
The land area allotted by the BLM to the McCullough Peaks herd is 120,344 acres. Yet over the last 10 years, the herd grew by a few dozen. Today the herd numbers around 170 animals. The target number of this particular herd, according to the BLM, is between 70-140. Horse advocates say that number—which equates to more than 700 acres per horse—is flawed. And confusingly, the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Handbook states a herd must have 150 horses to avoid homogeneity. According to Beckwith, 140 animals will ensure acceptable genetic diversity.

The Bureau of Land Management was tasked with managing wild horses after the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971. Before 1971,
Kat Ballou of the McCullough Peaks herd died trying to escape from a BLM holding pen in January. Photo by Heather Hellyer
Kat Ballou of the McCullough Peaks herd died trying to escape from a BLM holding pen in January. Photo by Heather Hellyer
huge numbers of then-unprotected wild horses on public lands were shot on acreages desired for livestock grazing, poisoned at water holes, or captured and sold into slaughter for chicken and dog food, among other atrocities. As of early 2023, the BLM estimated about 83,000 combined horses and wild burros roamed fragmented habitats in 10 western states covering around 27 million acres. Wild horses and burros along with bald eagles are the only animals under permanent federal protection today.

Nonetheless, wild horse activists have long accused the BLM of implementing arbitrary Animal Management Levels, or AML, which is the BLM number for how many horses should be in each herd management area.  The accusations were vindicated in a 2013 review by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, which challenged current BLM practices. In the report preface, researchers wrote, “The Wild Horse and Burro Program has not used scientifically rigorous methods to estimate the population sizes of horses and burros, to model the effects of management on the animals, or to assess the availability and use of forage on rangelands.”

The report found livestock consumed 70 percent of grazing resources on public lands; wild horses and burros ate less than 5 percent. And it recommended greater transparency by the BLM to improve outcomes and public confidence. In the last decade, it isn’t outwardly apparent the BLM has made significant management changes regarding horses and burros. According to an email from the BLM’s Public Affairs Office, the agency said it now conducts population surveys using
Cattle roam the Red Desert north of Rawlins, Wyoming. Wild horse advocates say livestock cause significantly greater ecological damage to landscapes in the West than wild horse herds. Photo courtesy Western Watersheds Project
Cattle roam the Red Desert north of Rawlins, Wyoming. Wild horse advocates say livestock cause significantly greater ecological damage to landscapes in the West than wild horse herds. Photo courtesy Western Watersheds Project
scientifically rigorous methods common for estimating other wildlife populations, including the “simultaneous double-count method,” which accounts for animals that were not seen during surveys. It has also invested heavily in GonaCon-Equine, a birth control treatment for mares that can last up to five years. The email did not directly address questions on cattle grazing numbers or impact, other than to say the landscape is “managed for rangeland health,” which wild horse, wildlife and environmental advocates dispute.

Wild horse advocates suggest the BLM should shift its priorities entirely. “The money spent on roundups would be better spent on [contraception] and better rangeland management,” said Heather Hellyer, founder of the nonprofit advocacy group Save Our Wild Horses. “Cattle and other livestock do more damage and shouldn’t be out there at all. The only reason to remove horses [and maintain low populations] is to make more room for cattle.”

The BLM flatly denies this statement. On its website, a Wild Horse and Burro Myths and Facts page states that not only have wild horse numbers risen in recent decades, but cattle grazing permits have fallen more than 30 percent since the 1970s. The agency points out the scientific review on the same page but does not address it.

Population continues to be handled using roundups, darting mares with the annual contraceptive PZP, or GonaCon, a longer lasting contraception. Captured horses and burros are put up for adoption, with constraints to ensure adopters cannot sell the animals to slaughter. The ones that aren’t adopted live out their lives at horse sanctuaries or on ranches set up for this purpose, for an annual sum north of $75 million.

____
Battle at Red Rock: Stallions Kiamichi and TNT battle near a cliff edge in the badlands of McCullough Peaks. Photo by Sandy Sisti
Battle at Red Rock: Stallions Kiamichi and TNT battle near a cliff edge in the badlands of McCullough Peaks. Photo by Sandy Sisti
For state agencies tasked with wildlife stewardship such as the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, biologists say there are in fact real issues with the non-native horses. “From a wildlife standpoint, we see an impact, particularly on drier years,” said Doug Brinmeyer, deputy chief of wildlife for Wyoming Game and Fish. “We do see evidence of overgrazing, and conflicts with smaller ungulates like pronghorn who won’t approach water sources and springs until the horses leave.” On the subject of livestock versus equine impacts, Brinmeyer deferred to the BLM’s decisions. “The bottom line is ecologically sustainable environments,” he said. “In a fragile alpine desert, wild horses need to be kept to the proper AML.”

The issue of cattle, which evolved in the bogs of Europe and are spectacularly unsuited to arid, high western deserts, is more ignored by ranchers and managing public lands agencies than disputed or improved. Cattle on public land in the West also account for only around 6 percent of the U.S. meat industry. Opponents point out this negligible level of economic productivity and food production is vastly outweighed by devastating impact of cattle on western ecosystems.

“Wild horses are often scapegoated for damage to forage caused by cattle and sheep,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit that works to protect healthy watersheds and intact natural landscapes. Although overpopulation of any animal is undesirable, wild horse populations are far below that level, said Molvar, pointing out that if the horses were causing problems on the landscape, his organization would support more aggressive population controls. “Livestock overgrazing is responsible for the vast majority of ecological damage in the West.”
The gray stallion Indigo leads his mares away from a rogue bachelor stallion who challenged his authority. Photo by Sandy Sisti
The gray stallion Indigo leads his mares away from a rogue bachelor stallion who challenged his authority. Photo by Sandy Sisti
The right balance of wildlife, healthy wildlands and human interests at present is an almost impossible conundrum, and the consequence of near total human dominion in just two short centuries. Interestingly, the horse originally evolved in North America about 53 million years ago, and eventually spread across the Bering land bridge to Asia. They disappeared from this continent about 10,000 years back, then Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century returned horses to North America. Today’s mustangs descend in part from the escaped horses of that era, and are part of the cowboy and the pioneer myth of westward expansion. They have helped humans conduct war, prosper in work, and provided transportation throughout history. They are social and emotionally intelligent beings, often used as modern companions and therapy animals.

For these reasons, public sentiment supports wild horses and will not abide extermination, euthanasia, or slaughter for meat, as is common in some other cultures around the world. It remains a complex problem with no easy solution, but the management inertia, flawed AMLs, and outdated mandate the BLM adheres to will have to change before the situation improves.

And in the middle of it all are individual, sentient and intelligent animals, steeped in the romance and the legend of the beautiful, self-reliant, wild horse.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Mountain Journal is the only nonprofit, public-interest journalism organization of its kind dedicated to covering the wildlife and wild lands of Greater Yellowstone. We take pride in our work, yet to keep bold, independent journalism free, we need your support. Please donate here. Thank you.
Brigid Mander
About Brigid Mander

Brigid Mander is a freelance writer based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where she covers adventure sports and travel as well as conservation and wildlife preservation issues. She is a contributing editor at Backcountry Magazine, and frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, among others.
Increase our impact by sharing this story.
GET OUR FREE NEWSLETTER
Defending Nature

Defend Truth &
Wild Places

SUPPORT US
SUPPORT US

Related Stories

March 4, 2024

The Gray Wolf and a Dogged Pursuit
A coalition of Western environmentalists seeks renewed endangered species status for western gray wolves.

October 5, 2023

Weighing new options for Yellowstone bison, NPS records 12,500 comments
Deadline for public comment on new bison management plan is Oct. 10

December 15, 2023

The 'Unprecedented' Decline of a Wyoming Pronghorn Herd
A brutal winter and rare respiratory bacteria killed thousands of pronghorn on one of the nation's longest migration routes. Now what?