86,000 wild mustangs that roam the West are at the center of raging controversy

Activists condemned the government’s recent capture of nearly 350 mustangs, but for those tasked with managing a booming wild horse population in a drought-stricken West, it’s complicated.

Just off the historic Pony Express Road in western Utah lies a picture-perfect vista of the American West: miles of sagebrush grasslands set against the foothills of the Onaqui Mountains. And, until early July, nearly 500 mustangs grazed and galloped through it. It’s one of the most well-known populations of free-roaming horses in the United States—a draw for tourists, photographers, and horse lovers.

On July 13, the helicopters showed up. Operated by private contractors commissioned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the low-flying helicopters drove hundreds of startled horses off the public lands and into holding pens. On a hillside nearby, activists opposed to the roundup protested and documented the event.

From July 13 to July 18, BLM rounded up 435 stallions, mares, and foals from the Onaqui Mountain Herd Management Area, one of 19 it manages in Utah. One young mare suffered a broken ankle in the frenzy and had to be euthanized. The agency gave fertility control injections to just over a hundred mares and stallions before releasing them back to the wild. The rest—about 350 horses—were sent to holding facilities, to enter permanent captivity.

BLM is required by law to manage wild horse and burro populations in a way that it deems sustainable for the horses, the burros, the public lands they live on, and the ecosystem they inhabit. The Onaqui herd, BLM says on its website, was so big that it was beginning to degrade the land, and because of drought, the horses haven’t been able to find enough to eat and their health was declining. The bureau determined that a sustainable size for the Onaqui herd should be between 121 and 210 horses and that, nationwide, there should be no more than 26,000. It has the authority to round up the rest.

Today, 86,000 free-roaming horses live on nearly 28 million acres of public lands across 10 western U.S. states, and 55,000 taken off the land now live in government-run quarters. With no natural predators, their numbers are growing by 15 to 20 percent each year, according to the bureau. In the first half of 2021, BLM removed 4,391 horses, aiming to bring that number up to total of nearly 11,600 by the end of the year. BLM did not respond to requests for comment.

Managing this horse population, including caring for captured horses, costs taxpayers about $100 million a year. Nonetheless, most Americans know very little about them, including where they came from, where they live, or even that they run wild in the American West by the tens of thousands, according to a 2020 survey by Utah State University. But for activists, scientists, the government, and livestock owners who lease public lands—and whose animals compete with horses for forage—approaching how to deal with the rising population of wild horses humanely and sustainably is an intractable dilemma that grows every year.

The controversy

The Onaqui herd “gather,” the technical term for the rounding up of free-ranging horses, renewed outrage among activists and the public, leading to protests at the Utah State Capitol and outcry on social media.

“People have named these horses, and know them,” says Neda DeMayo, executive director at Return to Freedom, a wild horse sanctuary and advocacy organization. “This tragic roundup could have been avoided by implementing a successful fertility control program years ago.” Because the herd is so easily accessible, she says, they would have made for the ideal case study for relying exclusively on on-range fertility control, with drugs administered via a dart gun or by temporarily corralling the horses.

Many activists argue that roundups are inhumane, saying that they break up families, traumatize individuals, and force free-ranging animals into confinement for life. “Horses live in herds. They are social, sentient beings and they suffer when separated from family bands,” DeMayo says.

It’s a “chaotic process to gather and bring horses into a trap site. Horses are pressed into an area where suddenly they’re all smushed together. They’re frenzied,” adds Celeste Carlisle, a biologist with Return to Freedom.

Many scientists, including those at BLM, argue that the land simply cannot support the growing number of free-ranging horses, which aren’t a native species—or even a wild one, depending on whom you ask. They’re descended from domestic horses brought to the continent by Europeans starting in the 16th century. “All of the horses are feral—they were released,” says Terry Messmer, a professor in the department of wildland resources at Utah State University. “They came [into] an ecosystem they didn’t co-evolve with.”

Reducing the impact of horses roaming public lands is an increasingly urgent issue as worsening droughts and warming temperatures intensify competition among wildlife—and livestock—for food and water, says Carlisle, who is also a member of the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, a group of scientists that advises BLM. (Some activists argue that BLM unfairly targets horses and instead should look to reduce the number of livestock grazing public lands.)

“We’re up against dramatic change to the western landscape,” Carlisle says. “Ecological-based decisions have to be the priority.”

Emotions can run hot when it comes to how best to control wild horse numbers, so finding a solution that satisfies everyone is far harder than with other wildlife. Horses hold a “special place in peoples’ hearts,” Messmer says. Traditional population control methods such as hunting, which is used to manage wolf and elk numbers, would be out of the question for horses in the eyes of the American people, he says. “Wolves have always been at a distance. You can’t put a bridle or saddle on a wolf. You can’t tame a wolf. But you can tame a feral horse. You can establish a relationship.”

A way forward

At the root of many activists’ frustrations is what they see as missed opportunities to test alternatives to roundups. More than 60 percent of BLM’s $100 million horse and burro management budget goes to caring for horses already in permanent holding, leaving limited money remaining to pursue innovative measures.

Many activists call for a permanent stop to roundups and instead a mass rollout of birth control darting. But it’s easy to oversimplify the situation, Carlisle says. Every population of horses is different. Some, like the Onaqui herd, are easily accessible, but others are not. In some areas, she says, accessing any animal means several hours of driving in a four-wheeler, and even then, horses aren’t approachable on foot. So in certain situations, “that unfortunately means gathers have to occur so that we can utilize fertility control.”

In addition to the issue of access, there are so many wild horses that it’s not feasible to give fertility control drugs to all the mares. “You have to combine [fertility control] alongside gathers in areas that are really stressed…[areas where] if you left horses out there, they would die,” she says.

In places where there isn’t enough food and water to support horses and other local animals—which is increasingly common both because of climate change and growing horse numbers—horses will die. “And it won’t be a soft graceful death. Dying of thirst or starvation is a slow, painful deterioration,” Carlisle says.

“But how do you go to a protest and hold up a sign that says all that? This information isn’t easy to explain....It’s really hard to figure out how we do this non-lethally, humanely, and sustainably, in the best way we can while the West is literally burning.”

The biggest challenge, she, Messmer, and DeMayo agree, is building trust among everyone who works on the issue. “No matter what BLM says, [advocates] don’t believe them,” DeMayo says. “No matter what advocates say, they’re seen as overly emotional. This is why we started sitting down with other stakeholders. We wanted to try to humanize each other.”

Both Messmer and Carlisle are part of the Free Roaming Equids and Ecosystem Sustainability (FREES) Network, which comprises 80 different organizations that work on horse and rangelands issues. Coordinated at Utah State University, FREES brings stakeholders together to discuss science-based solutions and improve communication.

Engaging local communities and creating individualized plans for each herd is key, the network says in a position statement. Its members also want to ramp up fertility control on the range.

“The gold standard would be if the reproductive birth rate could be slowed so you don’t have populations growing,” says Carlisle, who manages a successful fertility control program at the Return to Freedom sanctuary, which is home to more than 500 rescued horses.

“The issue is solvable,” says Messmer. “Not everybody is going to get everything they want, but [there has to be an acceptance of] certain things they can live with.”

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