Wild horses are federally protected animals, and over the last 30 years, their population has exploded.
Managing the population has become a daunting and controversial task, which now costs tax payers more than $75 million a year.
California and Nevada have the highest wild horse and burro populations in the nation. The land many of these horses once lived on, is now managed by the Bureau of Land Management [BLM], which means it is public and can be used for business or pleasure.
The wild horses aren’t the only animals on BLM land, either, sharing that land with wildlife and cattle. Its BLM’s job to make sure that public land is not overgrazed by any animals. When the wild horse population grows, congress orders BLM to round-up horses and relocate or adopt them out as pets.
“The BLM for years has been saying there are too many horses, but then there is the question…how many is too many,” Diann Nelson, manager of the Wild Horse Sanctuary in Shingletown, Calif., said.
Nelson used to round up wild horses for BLM. Today, she cares for about 300 adopted wild horses on private land.
The goal of the Wild Horse Sanctuary is to get people interested in the animals. Volunteers help manage the herd on 5,000 acres of land that sits at the edge of Shasta County.
“When you can see them up close, that’s when your emotions get involved,” Nelson said.
Wild horses have been stuck in a century’s old land battle with BLM and cattle ranchers. The problem is complex, Nelson says, because few know the history.
Just 30 minutes from Reno, is the Palomino Valley Wild Horse and Burro Center. It’s one of the 17 federally owned, temporary holding facilities for wild horses. Hundreds of wild horses are cared for and fed until BLM can adopt them out.
“Any time you give out an animal for free…that animal has a value of zero,” Deniz Bolbo, an advocate for the American Wild Horse Preservation, said.
Bolbo wants to see a complete overhaul of the way BLM manages the wild horse populations.
“This is a processing facility,” Bolbo said. “So, they run horses through the shoots, vaccinated them and castrate the stallions. After that, the families are broken up.”
Currently, the federal government spends $77 million a year on the “Wild Horse and Burro Program.” The money goes towards rounding up the horses, feeding and caring for the animals. Then driving them to different parts of the state to adopt them out.
WHY ROUND UP WILD HORSES?
Wild horses are not native to the United States. Conquistadors left behind domesticated horses in the 15th-16th century after exploring North America. Over the next 600 years, the horse population grew. Many horses where used by Native Americans and early pioneers. By the 1800's, cattle ranchers were capturing the wild horses in great numbers because wild horses competed with livestock, grazing land.
By the 1960’s, wild horses were often in-humanly captured and sold to slaughter houses. In 1971, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burros Act, making it illegal to capture or kill the animals. At that time, a large portion of the wild horse population lived on BLM ranges, the same ranges cattle ranchers used. Now protected, the wild horse population grew, thus starting another food battle between horses, livestock and wild animals. Relocation and adoption of wild horses are BLM’s only option to manage the population.
The federal government manages horse populations on BLM land, but off BLM land, a network of wild horse advocates are working to reduce the population in a different way.
“PZP is birth control,” Bolbo said. “Its short term and has to be administered regularly.”
Even though PZP only lasts one to three years, it’s showing promising results. The birth control is administered by air-powered dart guns. Volunteers regularly dart healthy mares in the Virginia Range, state-owned land just outside Virginia City, Nevada.
“We want to show that PZP is more effective than round ups,” Bolbo said.
Nevada state officials give special permission to these volunteers to dart wild horses. As a rule, they can only shoot horses at close range.
“Got her! Now we grab the dart and document it,” volunteer Nancy Kilian shouted after she darted a mature mare who was eating grass next to her young foal. Advocates keep detailed records of which horses have received the birth control. They want to show BLM how effective the PZP can be to manage wild horse populations.
WHATS THE BEEF ON WILD HORSE MANAGEMENT?
Nevada is the nation’s 31st largest beef producer. In order to feed their cattle, ranchers like David Stix have to use BLM grazing land.
“Right now, we have about 1,200 mother cows,” Stix said. “We are feeding them hay today because there is not enough grass in the winter.”
Cattle ranchers must buy permits to graze on BLM land. Livestock is limited to about eight months on the range to allow grass to grow back. Due to the growing wild horse population, BLM has reduced livestock grazing land by 35 percent since 1971.
“The cattle industry has had to cut back,” Stix said. “In fact, our numbers in the state of Nevada have decreased by 50 percent in the last year.”
The wild horse and burro act of 1971 weren't just created to protect wild horse, but also to protect grazing rights for wildlife and livestock. If the wild horse population gets too big and eats too much grass on BLM land, Congress steps in. Congress (with the help of advisors) is supposed to decide how many horses are rounded up and relocated.
“With the horses, they are not doing that anymore…they are not managing those levels,” Stix said.
Today, the BLM manage over 30 million acres of land. The land with wild horses on it is called Herd Management Areas [HMA] and they’re designated regions in 10 states where wild horses roam, but it’s a mix of public and private land. Boundary lines look like a checker board that wild horses regularly cross.
In 1971, federal wildlife managers determined that BLM lands could sustain up to 27,000 wild horses and burros. If the population went over that number, there would not be enough food for wildlife and livestock.
“It’s an unfair system and it’s not scientific, Bolbo said. “The National Academy of Science found that there is no science based on how many horses the BLM allows to be on the range before they deem them excessive.”
BLM paid the National Academy of Science [NAS] over a $1 million to evaluate the effectiveness of the wild horse and burro program. The overall the findings were not good. The NAS reported, “Continuation of business as usual practices will be expensive and unproductive for BLM and the public it serves.” The report also highlights BLM’s lack of “Scientific Rationale” for the number of horses allowed on the range, round-ups were not effective, and BLM surgical birth control methods are dangerous.
DIRECTED BY CONGRESS
BLM is often the target of blame when issues arise with wild horses, and for a good reason. Congress tasked the bureau with managing the animals on public land.
“We have invited congressmen to come out and look at the range,” BLM Manager Alan Shepard said.
He agrees with parts of the National Academy of Science report, but congress has to change laws and wild horses don’t often top the list of priorities.
“We are making changes, but in my opinion, the way we base our information on range land monitoring is based on a form of science,” Shepard said.
The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 did not set aside a specific amount of land for wild horses, but it does require BLM to count the population. One way they do that is through a photographic arial count method commonly used by the U.S. Geological Survey.
“The population has grown and grown over the years that they are impacting all the perennial species,” Shepard said.
One example of an overgrazed area is the Pin Nut HMA, a plot of BLM land just outside Carson City. Twenty years ago, BLM banned cattle grazing on this land in hopes that native grass would return, but Shepard says the wild horse population moved in.
“This area still has very little vegetation,” Shepard said.
Water supply is also scarce in this area. There is only a half-dozen watering holes on the Pine Nut HMA and wild horses are known to dig up watering holes’ when springs run dry. BLM is the process of building a fence around one waterhole so smaller animal can get a drink.
“This is like a sponge, a reservoir,” Shepard said. “So by protecting it, we can sustain it into the future.”
HORSE HUMAN CONFLICT
In 1971, the horse population on BLM land was around 25,000. Today, the population hovers over 67,000. Current BLM records show that every four years, the horse population doubles in size while wild horse adoption rates have seen a steady decline. With population on the rise, wild horses and burros are moving into rural areas. In the last five years, Nevada has seen 324 wild horse-related accidents resulting in two human fatalities.
Roads and human development have limited the range land for animals to roam. The wild horse is an American icon facing a century’s old land battle with the people who brought them here to lay claim to this nation. Their existence is in our hands and only we can choose to keep them wild.