America's Wild Horses - A Study in Mismanagement

How the US Government is eradicating an American icon

Over the past 30 years, under pressure from special interest groups and in blatant disregard of the public’s wishes, the BLM has systematically favored subsidized livestock grazing on public lands to the detriment of wild horse populations. The Burns Amendment, slipped into the 2005 federal budget without so much as a hearing or opportunity for public review, was the last nail in the coffin of federal wild horse protection, opening the door to the slaughter of thousands of these living symbols of our Nation’s spirit. A few months later, while in the process of rounding up another 10,000 horses supposedly due to poor range conditions, BLM eased public land grazing restrictions for private cattle. Now BLM is considering simply killing "excess" horses to help balance its budget.

In 1971, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency of the U.S. Department of Interior, was put in charge of implementing the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act. When the Act was passed, the U.S. Senate stated: "An intensive management program of breeding, branding, and physical care would destroy the very concept that this legislation seeks to preserve […], leaving the animals alone to fend for themselves and placing primary emphasis on protecting the animals from continued slaughter and harassment by man." Sadly, this Congressional mandate has been ignored and, over the past thirty-five years, no strategic plan to keep viable herds of wild horses on public lands was ever developed. 

Pursuant to the 1971 Act, BLM is directed to protect and manage wild free-roaming horses and burros as components of the public lands, and may designate and maintain specific ranges on public lands as sanctuaries for their protection and preservation. Yet, its management policy has translated into a diligent and steady herd reduction campaign, causing America’s wild horse population to dwindle to less than 25,000 and to lose 19 million acres of its legally allocated range.
Approximately 36,000 wild horses and burros adopted through BLM’s Adopt-A-Horse program are unaccounted for, and in 1997, BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program Director conceded that about ninety percent of rounded up horses ended up at slaughter. Questioned off-the-record, BLM employees routinely acknowledge rampant mismanagement and disregard for the 1971 Act (see Case Study #1). 

In 1992, wild horses and burros were left out of BLM’s revised mission statement altogether.

“Excess Animals”: A Very Nebulous Concept

The 1971 Act requires that wild horses "be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands." The Act also defines "range" as “the amount of land necessary to sustain an existing herd or herds of wild free-roaming horses and burros, which does not exceed their known territorial limits, and which is devoted principally but not necessarily exclusively to their welfare, in keeping with the multiple-use management concept for public lands." By law, only “excess animals” should be removed from the range. It is therefore how BLM determines “excess” that will shape the entire Wild Horse and Burro Program. 

The legal requirement that “excess” be determined based on population monitoring and inventory has been circumvented by allowing BLM to determine “excess” based on whatever information is in its possession at the time a decision is made, rather than requiring that relevant information (such as actual census numbers) be obtained. In fact, only four percent of BLM’s wild horse and burro budget is allocated to population inventory. The legal requirement that BLM consider the “recommendations of qualified scientists in the field of biology and ecology, some of whom shall be independent of both Federal and State agencies,” has also been circumvented or ignored. 

© Laurel Monreal Photography horsesofnature.com

“Excess” is simply determined on paper, using grossly inflated fertility rates (up to 25%, whereas the National Academy of Sciences estimates actual growth rates to be closer to 10%) and generalized data that does not take into account the specificity of each geographic area (foaling rates, mortality rates and foal survival rates can vary greatly from one area to the next). This questionable methodology leads to highly inaccurate population estimates (e.g. an 800% discrepancy in the Salt Wells HMA - WY, 2006). 

In conjunction with flawed population monitoring, BLM relies on the notion of “Appropriate Management Level” (AML) to determine “excess.” AMLs dictate how many horses and burros can be allowed on the range, and therefore what constitutes “excess.” AMLs are the single most important tool in BLM’s arsenal. They are also a moving target: once AML is reached in an area, meaning the wild horse population is deemed at an acceptable level, it is often subsequently lowered, paving the way for more round-ups (e.g. in 2001, the national wild horse AML was drastically lowered to 26,000; since then, it has crept down by a few hundred every year, adding up to a further loss of 1,500 as of 2006). 

AML for a given Herd Management Area (HMA) is based on forage and water availability, or rather, forage and water allocation. Case study after case study have shown that BLM consistently allocates substantially more forage to private livestock and game animals on the very areas that were legally designated for wild horses (e.g. 700% more forage allocated to livestock than to horses in the Stone Cabin Complex - NV, 2007), steadily reducing wild horse AMLs, sometimes to the point of eradication (the so-called “zeroing out” of a herd area). 

Likewise, only a small fraction of water available in a given area will be allocated to wild horses (e.g. 7% in the Spring Mountain Complex - NV, 2006), who will then be removed due to supposed lack of water, while livestock and game animals are allowed to thrive in areas that, by law, were to be “devoted principally” to wild horses (see Case Study #2). Case in point: bighorn sheep can be found on seventy-five percent of Nevada’s Muddy Mountain HMA and are allocated water from the National Park Service (NPS), water guzzlers and specially made dams. These water developments have allowed the HMA to be turned from seasonal into year-round bighorn habitat, a victory for the local hunting lobby, but are not taken into account in determining wild horse and burro AMLs for the area, despite a federal mandate that “all range improvements […] be installed, used, maintained and/or modified on public lands […] in a manner consistent with multiple-use application” (43 CFR 4120.3-1 (A)).

Another critical piece of federal regulation states: “If necessary to provide habitat for wild horses or burros, to implement herd management actions, or to protect wild horses or burros from disease, harassment or injury, the authorized officer may close appropriate areas of the public lands to grazing use by all or a particular kind of livestock.” (43 CFR 4710.5 (A)) This provision is also routinely ignored.

More Round-Ups

Round-ups (or “gathers,” to use a placating BLM euphemism), are BLM’s “management” tool of choice: the fewer horses on public lands, the more convenient for public land managers and special interest groups. Oftentimes, livestock is restocked shortly after wild horses have been removed (e.g. about 1,000 sheep reportedly brought in the Dry Lake Complex just a couple of weeks after 200 horses had been removed from that same area - NV, 2006; ten-year grazing permit granted for 6,882 head of cattle in New Pass Ravenswood HMA the same month as 692 horses are removed from the same HMA due to "lack of forage" - NV, Oct. 2007). 

In addition to the concept of “excess animals,” BLM has several tools at its disposal to justify round-ups. Early on, BLM did not capture wild horses who ranged out of their herd boundaries. Today, if wild horses step out of their boundaries, BLM removes them permanently from public lands. In the state of Nevada, home to about seventy percent of our nation’s wild herds, horses found outside of their federal boundaries are treated as stray animals and sold at auction, usually ending up at slaughter. 

Another well-established BLM practice is to thin out herds to the point where they are no longer deemed genetically viable, and then use the threat of in-breeding as an excuse to zero out such herds completely. It has been estimated that up to three-fourths of our remaining wild horse and burro herds are below population levels that would guarantee their long-term survival. Sex ratios in wild horse herds normally average 50/50. To further affect viability, BLM will stack herds with seventy percent of males, severely disrupting herd dynamics and behavioral patterns. 
Still, BLM’s most often used rationale for round-ups is the threat of starvation and drought conditions: so-called “emergency gathers” are another way for BLM to circumvent the legal requirement that only “excess” animals be rounded up. 

Whereas private cattle and sheep are promptly restocked, if in fact they were removed at all (e.g. almost 50% of the total estimated horse population removed from the Ely District following brush fires, but no reduction in authorized livestock for the 23 affected grazing allotments - NV, 2006), horses are not returned to the area after the “emergency” conditions subside. BLM simply makes the zeroing out of the HMA official by issuing an AML of zero: a wild horse range originally managed under the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act is now permanently devoid of wild horses (e.g. Blue Nose Peak HMA, AML of 1 - NV, 2003). Over the years, dozens of HMAs, representing millions of acres, have met this fate.

“This is not a Democracy”

(Jim Sparks, BLM District Manager, at a Sept. 2008 public hearing in Billings, MT)

A 1990 GAO report found that “in many areas where wild horse removals have taken place, BLM authorized livestock grazing levels have either not been reduced or have been increased thereby largely negating any reduction in forage consumption.”  In 1997, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility noted that “little has changed since the 1990 GAO report.  Wild horse management decisions continue to be made within the BLM on a political rather than scientific basis, and in the political balance between horse and cow, the cattle industry almost always wins.” (see Case Study #3)

Today, BLM continues to conduct indiscriminate round-ups, zeroing out herds in violation of the 1971 Act. In 2001, it obtained a 50% increase in annual budget to $29 million for implementation of an aggressive removal campaign (in 2005, that budget rose to $39 million). Twenty-four thousand horses were slated for capture; no long-term plan was put in place for these horses after their removal.

Case Studies

#1 - Jackson Mountain round-up/Palomino Valley deaths, NV, 2007
#2 - Nevada drought, 2004
#3 - Highland Peak HMA, NV, 2003-07
#4 - Wild burro status: critical analysis

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"From my earliest memories, I have loved horses with a longing beyond words." ~ Robert Vavra