I live in a rural county that relies heavily on ranching and agriculture, and while I often hear people talk about threats from large predators like bears or lions, I never hear complaints about wild horses living on our public lands.
Instead, I hear that these animals are living symbols of the American West. From city dwellers in Portland to ranchers in Idaho and also from the many indigenous peoples whose ancestors called the horse their brother, no one can imagine this region without herds of mustangs and burros running free.
From the federal government, it’s a different story. With a strong pro-livestock bias, the Bureau of Land Management has for decades spun a false narrative about an “overpopulation” of horses that, the agency claims, are at risk of starvation and habitat destruction. The agency wants us to reject what photographers, tourists and advocates document every day: thriving, robust horse families living peacefully on vast stretches of federal lands.
The reality is that wild horse populations are insignificant compared to the large numbers of cattle and sheep to which the BLM allocates up to 80% of the feed on designated wild horse herd management areas. The agency complains that 80,000 wild horses is too many, but fails to mention the 1.5 million cattle and sheep it allows to graze on public lands at the taxpayer-subsidized rate of just $1.35 per head. animal unit month.
Two prominent grassroots environmental organizations – Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Western Watersheds Project – disclosed BLM’s own grazing data that reveals commercial livestock, not wild horses, are responsible for overgrazing. These organizations were joined by the Sierra Club last November in calling on the BLM to stop scapegoating feral horses for land damage attributable to large herds of beef cattle and herds of sheep.
Then there is the tired debate about whether wild horses are native to the West. The ancestors of today’s wild herds evolved on the North American landscape over millions of years, paleontologists say. It’s true that wild horses were wiped out from their home range at the end of the last ice age—probably by human hunters—but some native tribes insist that the horse never completely died out.
Whether they are a native species that never left this region, or whether they are native species reintroduced to their birthplace, wild horses evolved in this landscape. Because cows evolved in the cooler temperate pastures and forests of Europe, they struggle to survive in our harsh, dry ecosystems, while wild horses and burros thrive.
When you drive around the West, you’ll pass thousands of skinny cows, while families of strong, healthy horses thrive on public ranges. And while cattle herd and trample sensitive coastal areas, wild horses will travel up to 20 miles a day in search of forage. With their simple digestive system, they help spread native grasses far and wide.
Burros even serve as ecosystem engineers, digging wells in parched desert areas that provide a water source for other wild species. Horses and burros are prey animals that also serve as a food source for native carnivores, which, if spared from extinction for the benefit of livestock, help regulate wild horse populations.
The horse evolved in North America along with the lion, wolf and grizzly. It is instructive that, while no one laments the loss of a wild foal to a lion or a wolf, federal officials react quickly when a bull or sheep is plucked by one of them.
The federal government has a built-in bias against wild horses, regardless of the critical ecological role they play in promoting mountain range health. The BLM’s wild horse program is largely staffed by self-styled cowboys with a “round ’em up” mentality for the horses and a “graze-at-your-will” attitude toward livestock.
Where necessary, wild horses can be humanely managed in the countryside with documented fertility control or an emergency muster. But those are the unusual circumstances.
It’s time to reject the BLM’s false narrative that wild horses harm public lands and embrace an approach that truly protects them. Wild horses and burros belong right where they are.
Scott Beckstead is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. The author lives in Oregon, where he teaches animal law and wildlife law. He also serves as director of campaigns for Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy. Photo: Vladimir Vujeva