Wild horses battle for breeding rights in the harsh Nevadan desert. Unbeknownst to them, they’re also caught in the crossfire of an emotional, controversial, and political battle with long-lasting ecological consequences.
Wild Horses, Wilder Controversy
More than 70,000 wild horses live on Western rangelands that can only supposedly support 27,000 animals. Can the government, ecologists, and advocates find a humane solution for managing them?
My fascination with wild horses began in 2009 at Texas A&M University. Parker Flannery, a close friend of mine, proposed that we drop out of school, adopt wild horses, and attempt to traverse the Continental Divide Trail. What started as a crazy idea turned into reality when we adopted a handful of mustangs from a holding facility in Paul’s Valley, Oklahoma. Being 20 years old and in way over our heads, we adopted the biggest, stoutest, and most dominant horses they had available.
Thanks to Parker’s training expertise, we successfully trained the horses, brought in another friend, Mike Pinckney, supplemented our herd with a few ranch horses, and embarked on our journey in the summer of 2010. We planned to ride 2,000 miles from Santa Fe, New Mexico, through Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana to the Canadian border.
The trip completely changed my life. Being from Texas, where there is virtually no public land, I was blown away by the sheer size and majesty of our vast public lands in the American West. I found it amazing that a backcountry stretch of that distance still existed, and now that I’ve researched Western public lands extensively, I have an even greater appreciation for the blood, sweat, and tears that enlightened conservationists shed in the fight to have these public lands set aside for future generations to cherish and protect. I was equally as amazed—and shocked—at the plight of the wild horses and burros. In 2009 there were nearly 31,500 wild horses and burros in government holding facilities and 37,000 in the wild—in an area that supposedly had enough forage for only 27,000 horses. Numbers have grown steadily since then.
Wanting to find homes for the horses in the government holding pens, I gathered three friends and planned to do another long ride to promote wild horse adoptions—this time going all the way from Mexico to Canada through the most backcountry route left in the American West. To raise awareness, we created a documentary, Unbranded. We launched a Kickstarter campaign, gathered the money, attracted an all-star film production team directed by Phillip Baribeau, adopted wild mustangs from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), trained them with assistance from horse trainers Lanny Leach and Jerry Jones, and embarked on our journey.
For five months and six days during the summer of 2013 we crossed 3,000 miles, primarily through public lands, in Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. We saw some of the most amazing landscapes in the world: the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park, and many other wonderful but lesser known public lands. The trip was simply spectacular and redefined who I am.
The documentary turned out much better than I could’ve ever dreamed. We took Unbranded to film festivals across the world and had a theatrical release. It received more than two dozen awards, and is available worldwide on Netflix. The film has been seen by millions of people. We promoted the adoption of wild horses to the best of our ability, even going so far as auctioning a personal horse. We held nationwide theatrical screenings, with all the proceeds going to the Mustang Heritage Foundation to fund adoption efforts.
Did we succeed in getting wild horses adopted? Absolutely. Hundreds of people were inspired to adopt wild horses, and we raised nearly $100,000. Did we succeed in getting all the wild horses adopted and finding a solution to the plight of the wild mustangs? Not even close.
As of March 1, 2016, there were 67,000 horses and burros on public lands and 45,000 in government holding pens. Computer models show that the current population, including foals born in 2016, is approximately 75,000 wild horses and burros. The controversial nationwide Appropriate Management Level (AML), defined as “the number of horses to have thriving ecological balance with the vegetation, wildlife, and livestock usage,” is 27,000.
How did wild horse numbers get so much higher than the Appropriate Management Level? The BLM gathers excess horses to prevent overgrazing and offers them up for adoption. But there aren’t enough adopters, and euthanasia or slaughtering for human or pet consumption aren’t attractive options. The horses have accumulated in holding across the country to the 45,000 we have today. The vast majority of the BLM’s budget goes to feeding horses in holding pens, which prohibits limits the agency’s ability to gather other horses off the range. Without the budget or facilities to round up and hold enough horses to equal the birth rate, the population in the wild has increased to nearly three times the Appropriate Management Level.
Ecologists, rangeland managers, and ranchers are concerned that overpopulated wild horse herds have caused and are causing irreversible damage to delicate desert ecosystems. Wild horse advocates argue that sheep and cattle, which outnumber wild horses on public lands nationwide, should be reduced to make more forage available. Wildlife conservation organizations claim that bison, bighorn, mule deer, pronghorn, sage grouse, and other native species should take precedence over livestock and wild horses.
Through the creation of Unbranded and an accompanying book, I had the chance to interview some of the most brilliant minds in ecology, wildlife biology, animal welfare, politics, and rangeland management. I was humbled beyond belief earlier this year when I was nominated to sit as wildlife management chair for the volunteer Bureau of Land Management wild horse and burro advisory board, as a 28-year-old, to help make policy recommendations that directly influence the rangeland and wildlife health on 31.2 million acres of public land in the West.
Since then, because I voted in favor of euthanizing unadoptable horses to prevent rangeland degradation, I have had death threats directed at me and my family. So before I dive into this issue in as journalistically as I possibly can, I need to clarify a few things: I am not in the livestock industry, I am not being paid by a political entity, and the following blogs and short film were being developed long before my volunteer nomination took place. I’ve also adopted seven mustangs and love them dearly.
“Wild” horses in the American West are the perfect example of how species classification in politics is much more interesting than in biology class. What exactly is a wild horse? Depending on whom you ask, wild horses are a reintroduced native species indigenous to North America, an invasive pest disrupting ecological functions, or feral livestock that are culturally significant and whose numbers need to be closely managed.
In the 1950s, Velma Johnston, later known as Wild Horse Annie, witnessed a variety of unnecessarily cruel mustang-gathering techniques and dedicated the rest of her life to the protection of her “wild ones.” Her dedication culminated in the passing of the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burro Act that President Richard Nixon signed into law in 1971. The law states that “Congress finds and declares 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.”
At the passing of the WH&B Act, free-roaming horses and burros were found on 53.8 million acres across the United States, 42.4 million of which were under the Bureau of Land Management’s jurisdiction. Today, wild horses and burros are present on 179 different BLM Herd Management Areas (HMA), covering 31.6 million acres in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming.
Each HMA is different in size, geography, and bloodlines. Some of the herds have Spanish descent, others are large draft animals, and some herds are tiny and known for being difficult to train. Some herds are mainly paints, others bays, and some exhibit primitive features of a dorsal stripe and stripes on the withers and legs. Each herd is unique, but all herds have survived a gauntlet of serious selection criteria. Generations of natural selection, of braving extreme heat and cold, and of battling for breeding rights have resulted in animals that survive on meager rations and are resilient, tough-footed, intelligent, and well-suited to thrive in the West’s harsh conditions.
Under the WH&B Act’s protection, wild horse and burro populations expanded and rangeland managers became concerned that the animals would overgraze and damage the land. The BLM established Appropriate Management Levels for each Herd Management Area to have “a thriving natural ecological balance” with wildlife, vegetation communities, and, in some areas, livestock. To achieve the AMLs, the BLM began gathering horses, putting them in holding pens, and offering them up for adoption. Since 1971, more than 235,000 wild horses and burros have been adopted. As our society changes and regulations tighten, annual adoptions have fallen from a high of 8,000 per year to about 2,500 per year currently. Over time, these excess horses became stockpiled in feedlot-type pens to the point where the BLM knew they couldn’t adopt them all out. The agency started leasing out pastures in the Midwest for long-term holding. This unsustainable program has steadily grown for decades to the disaster it is in today.
As of March 1, 2016, there were nearly 13,500 wild horses and burros living in feedlot-type short-term holding pens and another 31,500 living in long-term pastures. Take a minute and let those numbers sink in. All 45,000 of these wild animals were gathered off the range, segregated by sex, castrated, branded, given shots, and doomed to sit in a feedlot for about five years. They have been or will be released onto a foreign pasture in the Midwest bearing no resemblance of their former wild lifestyle. Each horse will live on that long-term pasture until he gets old, or has organ failure or an injury. Then he will be destroyed in as humane a manner as possible.
The cost for all 45,000 of these horses is approximately $50,000 per horse over its lifetime. That’s more than twice what I paid to go to college. Although the Wild Horse and Burro Act specifically states that “The Secretary shall cause additional excess wild free-roaming horses and burros for which an adoption demand by qualified individuals does not exist to be destroyed in the most humane and cost-efficient manner possible,” this option hasn’t been utilized due to lawsuits, public outcry, and congressional riders. The expense of holding all these horses has crippled the BLM’s wild horse budget to the point where it’s spending two- thirds of its entire budget, nearly $50 million in 2016, warehousing horses in short-term and long-term pastures.
In addition to the financial cost, the environmental cost of transporting tens of thousands of horses and supplying feed to them is staggering. Yield data from the USDA-NASS for California shows that irrigated grass hay can require a hundred gallons of water per pound of hay. The BLM generally feeds each horse 20 pounds of hay every single day. One horse in a holding pen in California or Nevada, eating locally produced irrigated hay, could be responsible for water usage totaling 730,000 gallons per year. Today, there are 4,620 wild horses and burros in California and Nevada pens, needing 3,372,600,000 gallons of water annually if no non-irrigated hay is available (as in drought conditions). While this water usage pales in comparison to the local dairy and livestock industry’s demand for its alfalfa production, it’s worth noting, especially since the American West has recently seen some of the hottest and driest years in history.
With its wild horse and burro budget crippled by the nearly $50 million annual feed bill, the BLM has completely forsaken trying to keep horses on public rangelands at the Appropriate Management Level on a nationwide scale. That has allowed exponential growth to the current population of 75,000, nearly three times the appropriate level. This population estimate does not include the hundreds of thousands of free-roaming wild horses on tribal lands or the unknown number of horses on public lands that aren’t designated as wild horse areas. In its October 2016 report, the Office of the Inspector General found that the “BLM has no strategic plan to manage wild horse and burro populations.”
In 2013 I traveled to southwest Utah to photograph and watch a wild horse roundup. I had the pleasure of interviewing Ellie Price, a California vintner, filmmaker, horse sanctuary owner, and advocate with the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. I asked her, “Do wild horses have a right to be here?”
“Congress has already answered that question by unanimously passing a law to protect wild horses as living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West,” she replied. “The American public has demonstrated time and time again its support for the protection of these animals on our Western public lands. The horse evolved on the North American continent, maybe it left for a while, but as far as I’m concerned they have a place on the Western landscape as a reintroduced native species.”
Wild horse management has been controversial ever since the 1971 act was passed to protect the horses, said Bob Garrot, director of the Fish and Wildlife Ecology and Management Program at Montana State University, who has researched wildlife and wild horse population dynamics since the 1980s.
“Before , they were feral livestock and anyone could go out, gather them, do whatever they wanted. Since the act was passed, management of the horses has been … I don’t want to say dysfunctional, but we don’t have and have never had a sustainable management plan. The vast majority of the wild horses we have come from standard saddle stock like thoroughbreds and farm horses, and their genetics are commonly found domestically. A lot of these horses originated in the Dust Bowl when people just turned them loose when they couldn’t afford them; that still happens today.
“It’s akin to dogs. Dogs came from domesticated wolves, but through a long history of artificial selection by people, we have all these different breeds which all trace back to wolves,”Garrot explained. “But are they native? Are they the same critters that were there 10,000 years ago? Well, no they aren’t. Those horses are not the same horses that were here in the Pleistocene. The Western landscapes are not the same landscapes, neither are the plant and animal communities. So the question now is, how many do we need to have, where do we need to have those animals, and how do we manage them to get to that number?”
- Nat Geo Expeditions
How people perceive wild horses varies greatly. To dig deeper into the matter, I traveled to Texas A&M University to meet with Gus Cothran, a professor and equine geneticist who has tested 70,000 horses in his lifetime, 12,000 of which were BLM wild horse and burros. I also pulled hair samples from my adopted mustangs to see if we could test them and get insight into their pasts. The data obtained from my horses’ DNA can then be compared to other breeds for clues to their ancestry. In wild horse herds, the same data can reveal the genetic variability of their herd. This is important, because many wild horse herd management areas are genetically isolated.
“The vast majority of herds living on the BLM’s lands are basically mongrel, mixed-breed horses that probably have not been living wild for many generations. Genetic changes happen very, very slowly, even when populations are really small, and inbreeding depression isn’t going to happen at a rapid rate. But there is indication that some herds could move in that direction,” Cothran said.
“The good things about working with horses, from a management standpoint, is that they’re very long lived, so things happen in generation intervals. And if a herd is getting inbred, the easiest thing to do is add an individual or two per generation from another herd. It only takes a very low level of genetic exchange,” he said.
It took a few hours for the genetic results from my horses to come back, but Cothran got really excited when he saw them. “Basically what we do is take the individual DNA for each sample and compare them to a reference panel of about 70 different breeds of horses and see which is the best fit. Whether it means anything is hard to tell, but it does give you some information. Three of your mustangs, Violet, Chief, and Luke, have results all over the map, indicating that they’re mongrel type horses that don’t really have unique genetics. That’s the rule for most mustangs.
“But the last one, Tuff, his closest result is Brazilian Criollo, the second is Pantaneiro, and the third is Argentine Criollo. Those breeds all descended from Spanish stock so we definitely have a Spanish horse here. While the Spanish genetics are commonly found domestically, only about 3 to 5 percent of mustangs in the wild have those unique genetics, and they’re primarily found on only about 10 of the 179 Herd Management Areas.”
I asked Cothran what advice he has for the BLM managers from a genetic standpoint.
“The herds that do have unique bloodlines are worth preserving and treating as special populations, managed differently, to grow that unique genetic pool,” Cothran said. “The vast majority of the mustangs, I refer to it as the mongrel population, you can take a general management strategy on them because their genetics are commonly found in domestic breeds. In fact, if you took individuals from different breeds and turned them loose in the wild, after a few generations you would have the mustangs we have today. Because that’s exactly what happened.”
So what exactly is a wild horse? That depends on whom you ask. And why should we even manage wild horses rather than allowing them to be wild, free, and regulate naturally? I packed my bags and drove to Ely, Nevada, the heart of the wild horse and burro controversy, to meet with ecologists, wildlife biologists, and rangeland managers to learn more about the ecological consequences of mismanagement.
Ben Masters is a filmmaker, writer, and horse hand who splits his time between Bozeman, Montana, and Austin, Texas. Masters studied wildlife management at Texas A&M University, is a proud owner of six mustangs, and serves as wildlife management chair for the volunteer BLM Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board. Masters is best known for Unbranded, an adventure documentary where he and three friends adopted wild horses and rode 3,000 miles across the American West to inspire people to adopt mustangs. This four-part series and short film presents his experiences, research, and interviews on the controversial wild horse issue in the United States.