Bureau of Land Management

The Feds Have Been Warehousing Wild Horses in Efforts to Preserve Them

A wild-animal preservation program has become a scheme for corralling captive beasts that bother cattle ranchers.


Cattle ranchers who lease public land to graze their livestock tend to see free-roaming wild horses as nuisances, fueling conflict among commercial interests, bureaucrats, and animal advocates. A controversial agreement was hammered out last week—but, unsurprisingly, that has hardly settled the dispute.

That something had to change is granted by pretty much everybody involved in the wild horse debate. The government can't just continue removing wild animals from the land and warehousing them at growing expense, as it has done for decades.

In "The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971," Congress announced "that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene." Lawmakers ordered the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to keep what was left of the population—perhaps 10,000 animals—alive and kicking.

Government officials sort of complied with the congressional mandate—the population of wild horses and burros has certainly grown, to over 80,000. But more of that population now lives in captivity than roams free, with holding costs consuming roughly half of the budget designated for protecting the herds.

The BLM, which inherited the lion's share of the task, managed to turn a program intended to preserve a population of much-beloved wild animals into a scheme for corralling captive beasts that nobody wants and some interests positively dislike.

Return to Freedom, a wild horse and burro advocacy group, sees serious conflicts of interest at work. The group's website points out:

The BLM and the USFS, among others, are responsible for managing the nation's public lands and are foremost the managers of wild horses and burros. Their responsibilities also include issuing public land grazing permits to cattle ranchers. These grazing permits cover limited areas of public land that are available for lease. So, for every wild horse removed from a grazing permit allotment, a fee-paying cow gets to take its place, and a public land rancher gets the benefit of public land forage at bargain rates.

In 2013, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) took a formal look at the management of the wild horse and burro population and agreed that officials have made a hash of balancing their responsibilities.

"The goal of managing free-ranging horses and burros to achieve the vaguely defined thriving natural ecological balance within the multiple-use mandate for public lands has challenged BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program since its inception," the report found. Worse, BLM officials appear to have been making it up as they go along in terms of policies and procedures.

"The links between BLM's estimates of the national population size and its actual population surveys—the data that underlie these estimates—are obscure," the NAS assessment continued. "It seems that the national statistics are the product of hundreds of subjective, probably independent judgments and assumptions by range personnel about the proportion of animals counted during surveys, population growth rates, and other factors."

If BLM hasn't quite managed the challenges of conducting headcounts, it's probably no surprise that management of the population has been equally sloppy. Removal and culling of herds to get them out of the way of competing interests even as those herds experience rapid growth—15 to 20 percent per year—is the result of ill-considered policies chasing themselves in a circle.

The NAS report adds:

Management practices are facilitating high rates of population growth. BLM's removals hold horse populations below levels affected by food limits. If population density were to increase to the point that there was not enough forage available, it could result in fewer pregnancies and lower young-to-female ratios and survival rates. Decreased competition for forage through removals may instead allow population growth, which then drives the need to remove more animals.

To fix the problem, in addition to modifying removals, the NAS also recommended a fertility control campaign to control the horse and burro population. Birth control vaccines that prevent fertilization for females and chemical vasectomies for males, would be coupled with cross-breeding animals from different management areas to maintain diversity.

How "wild" the resulting population of neutered-and-bred horses and burros will be is an open question. But the herds have long been maintained more as museum exhibits of the wildness-that-was than as actual free-roaming beasts. Better management could have the benefit of being less self-defeating and more cost-effective in maintaining the populations. It would certainly be better than just fueling more population growth and spending ever-greater resources to warehouse or slaughter the results.

The deal that was presented to BLM last week is supposed to achieve just that—better management of the not-so-wild horse and burro herds, bringing together competing groups and interests that have clashed over the issue for decades. Nonetheless, controversy continues.

On one side is the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), which calls the new agreement "a powerful, non-lethal path forward for these imperiled icons of the American West," and The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Public Lands Council, American Farm Bureau Federation, and Society for Range Management have also signed on to the plan.

But others organizations aren't convinced. Friends of Animals President Priscilla Feral accused ASPCA and HSUS of "throw[ing] in the towel when it comes to protecting America's wild horses" by "capitulating to the Bureau of Land Management."

An American Wild Horse Campaign statement called it "a bad deal [that] violates the Statement of Principles and Recommendations signed by more than 100 horse organizations." The group complains that ranchers benefit the most, large-scale roundups will continue, and the agreement neglects to specify the most effective fertility-control methods, such as vaccines.

So the debate is only settled-ish, pending an assessment of the results in the years to come. But for now, federal officials have demonstrated yet again that they can mismanage anything—even herds of wild animals—into a public policy mess.

NEXT: Brickbat: Coloring Between the Lines

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  1. Once again we see how evil corporations in their pursuit of the almighty dollar…

    Oh wait.

  2. Must…avoid…joke about…federal…school lunch…program…

    1. I’m pretty sure the meat that they serve in my school in Ukraine is horse meat. I thought the meat was maybe badly canned beef but then saw cans with pics of horses on them in market nearby. I had to stop and think- if someone came by while I was eating and told me it was definitely was horse, would I be able to continue eating. I decided I would because it wasn’t that bad and when mixed with the cold, cooked cabbage “salad”, it tasted pretty good and definitely better than the truly mystery meat cutlet.

      1. You can get plenty of horse meat here in the States too. Just buy the beef frozen lasagna at Aldis.

      2. I tried horse sashimi on a recent trip to Tokyo. It was pretty good.

  3. Once again we see proof that there is no misery so deep nor problem so terrible that government intervention can’t make it worse.

    1. Feral horses are an invasive species that should be harvested and eaten.

      1. Horses evolved in North America, dumdum. What we need is some natural predators, like lions, which also used to live in North America.

        1. Horses that evolved in North America went extinct. All horses in North America derive from Eurasian horses. The traditional “western mustang” derives from the horses of Spanish explorers, interbred with escaped horses of all the other European explorers and immigrants, cowboys, travelers, dude ranches, etc. through the present day. There is much “romance” associated with the wild horse, but it is not wrong to say that they are pest animals capable of overgrowing and destroying their environment.

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  5. This is less a story about government incompetence, and more a story of the complete incoherence of environmentalism that stands as a movement motivated by feels.

    “Wild” horses are an invasive species in the United States. The native population of horses died out 10,000 – 13,000 years ago. The horses roaming about today are descendants of horses brought to the Americas by the Spanish and other settlers 500 or so years ago. They are not substantially different from the rabbit in Australia.

    While it is always nice to poke fun at the government, this is more an example of what happens when the collective population has competing views of the species. In most BLM land, native species are kept under control by hunting. But something is special about Horses, and no one really wants to kill these animals.

    Whether libertarians like it or not, the US has appropriated vast swaths of land from the average citizen. Either that BLM land is marked off limits, (in which case do we really need so much BLM land?) or we have to figure out how to share that land among competing interests. And if we aren’t going to hunt these animals, then there will be a need to control the population.

    Maybe the BLM can be more precise in its counting, but by all measures we do have, they have managed to increase the population while making the lands open to ranchers. Unless Reason has a view on what the best outcome of this program is, complaints about their methods seem pretty thin, especially when the critics are populated by people who want government control of these lands even more strict so they can preserve a species that hasn’t even been on the continent for 1000 years.

    1. Most of the rest of the world doesn’t have a problem killing horses…and then eating them. But to your main point, it is definitely a story of government incompetence because I can’t think of another word that would better describe a government that creates policy based on feelz.

      1. To (unfortunately) quote some muckety muck, “Government is just the word for things we do together”. We have significant numbers of people in the public who want wild horses roaming around on BLM land. Should they not have a right to ask that the land be used in that way? Should ranchers be allowed or prohibited from making use of this land that was appropriated by the government for public use?

        Again, this isn’t about government incompetence so much as it is a shining example of how messy it is for the public to solve its resource constraints with the government. The public has varied and contradictory desires for the environment, and so they have created a government that is trying to do everything at once. That isn’t the government’s fault- I actually think in this case, they are doing as well as can be expected given these competing claims. The fault lies in the environmentalist movement that wants to “preserve” an animal that is relatively recent to this soil, merely because of nostalgia.

        Other than being feral, these horses are not significantly different than the animals you find on horse ranches around the country. They are not genetically distinct and are capable of inter-breeding. And for all the hand ringing about an 80,000 head herd, there are millions of horses of the SAME SPECIES living happily on their owners’ lands. Wild horses are essentially stray dogs, yet (hopefully) no one is arguing that the government ought to spend all this time and energy protecting packs of stray dogs running around the country.

        1. ^ This x 10

  6. […] [ April 30, 2019 ] The Feds Have Been Warehousing Wild Horses in Efforts to Preserve Them Blo… […]

  7. Europe would be happy to take them off of our hands.

  8. Why the ever loving fck do we have a captive breeding program for an invasive species?

    What’s next, zebra mussels and European starlings?

    1. How about politicians. I could support a captive breading program for politicians, with emphasis on the captive part. 🙂

      1. breading?

        If you’re suggesting that we shoud take polticians, dust them with flour, dip in egg, cover with bread crumbs, and then fry them in oil, I’m on board.

        1. Dough!

  9. Seems like these are no longer wild animals. They are just in a very large and obscenely inefficient zoo.
    So the wild horse act no longer applies.

  10. The fundamental problem is that conservation isn’t about compromise, but in a pluralistic democracy, the BLM needs to account for the concerns of both ranchers and conservationists. There’s a clear solution to this problem. It’s called “private property”. When land is owned privately by conservationists, they don’t need to be responsive to the concerns of anybody but conservationists.

    We see the same thing happen in our national parks, where, for instance, the last of the truly wild bison herd is culled on a yearly basis to protect the livestock of local ranchers from Brucellosis when they’re grazing on federal land. How many taxpayers realize that wild bison are culled to protect ranchers and their cheap grazing?

    The American people imagine that the park service, the BLM, the Fish & Wildlife service, etc. are there to protect our natural resources from industry, but in a pluralistic democracy, those agencies are also there to protect industry from conservationists.

    The American people need to figure it out. If we want land conserved, don’t pay taxes and ask the government to protect it in a pluralistic democracy. If you want land conserved, give money to private organizations that are devoted to conservation through the acquisition of private property.

  11. Sell them to Alpo.

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  13. >>>Cattle ranchers who lease public land to graze their livestock tend to see free-roaming wild horses as nuisances

    waaaah? public land, assholes. put your cattle on your land and fence the horsies out.

    1. First: this land was originally grazed freely. The government came in and took over this land. The courts ruled that the grazers had a prior use that the government has to honor. Therefore, these grazing allotments pre-date the BLM. Additionally, if you look at the charter of

      1. Of the BLM and USFS, they are required to have land available for agricultural use, including grazing and logging, as well as other activities, including mining. Feral horses are extremely destructive to more than just cattle grazing. They outcompete other grazers (whereas cattle, sheep and goats are closely managed to not compete with wildlife). This was never a problem until bleeding heart urbanites began crying about the slaughter of “beautiful horses”. These animals are feral, the same as feral dogs and cats, yet the latter has no federal protection. These horses provide no benefit to the environment, and in fact are often a detriment. The herds are vastly overpopulated, and the horses tend to be of low quality (so much so that the BLM is actually now paying people to adopt them). The BLM is forbidden from selling them to slaughter houses, again for no other reason than “we must protect these beautiful animals”. It is complete mismanagement that harms the environment and local economies.

  14. “Management practices are facilitating high rates of population growth. BLM’s removals hold horse populations below levels affected by food limits. If population density were to increase to the point that there was not enough forage available, it could result in fewer pregnancies and lower young-to-female ratios and survival rates. Decreased competition for forage through removals may instead allow population growth, which then drives the need to remove more animals.”

    Pretty sure these folks set housing policies in CA also.

  15. I blame Marilyn Monroe. She screamed and yelled so much when she found out Clark Gable was rounding up the horses to make dog food, so the government ended up banning that option.

  16. “The Feds Have Been Warehousing Wild Horses in Efforts to Preserve Them.”
    The same can be said for people who are arrested for minor offenses.

  17. I can confirm this.

    In my sector there’s a new Horse Warehouse between Bed, Bath & Beyond and H&R Block. It’ll be a great place to meet women. Those horsey girls really know their stuff.

  18. In the late billionaire J.R. Simplot’s bio he talks about shooting and skinning wild horses at 13 to feed his hogs. It got him his first stake. All you need is a chain and a model t to do it quickly.

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