INSIGHTS: Crisis for America's Last Wild Horses

By Craig C. Downer

MINDEN, Nevada, January 19, 2005 (ENS) - When the wild horses and burros are confronted with a severe winter such as the West is now experiencing - with over 20 feet of snow deposited during the past month in the high Sierra above my home Carson Valley, Nevada - they have many ingenious ways of riding out the storm.

Many of their survival capacities stem from an amazing ancestral memory, or instinct, that guides them. When the killing “death fog,” or "pogonip" in the Paiute language, settles in the low river valleys, they respond by going to warmer areas midslope. When fierce blizzard winds blow, they quickly identify closed stands of pinyon, juniper, or other trees and bushes for shelter. Sometimes this shelter takes the form of large boulders, or box canyons, where a typical band of seven mustangs can snugly huddle by a tree while winds howl fantastically overhead.


Wild horses in winter near Fallon, Nevada (Photo by Bob Goodman courtesy BLM)
Wild horses and their cousins, the burros, are equipped with hard hooves that break the iced-over water sources and the snow-encrusted forage. This permits these equids to eat and drink along with a multitude of other animals of many species from tiny mice to medium sized rabbits and hares, to full sized bobcats, puma, and bears.

During summer drought, the horses are able to dig out tiny seeps of water with their hooves, allowing many other species to drink. Their hooves prove to be a vital survival factor during extreme seasons.

And it makes sense that horsekind’s ancient presence upon the North American continent has resulted in many obligate or near obligate interdependencies, or mutualisms, between horse-like animals and the many plant and animal species that share North America as their cradle of evolution.

Another amazing wild horse capacity is the ability to limit their own population numbers. This self-regulation occurs especially among what ecologists term “climax” species such as the horse and burro. Such self-regulation involves the establishment of band territories that are defended by each band’s stallion, or patron, and the individual band home ranges that include these.

Peripheral territorial trails demarcate these areas; and each such home range encompasses sufficient shelter, water, mineral and food sources for the survival of the band.

Often included within the home range and core territory of each band, especially in the Great Basin’s mountain ranges and interceding valleys, is an elevational gradient that allows the band to occupy cool, grassy highlands during the hot summer. In these highlands are found small or large springs that sustain the horses, but upon which they do not camp as do the destructive hordes of cattle people place upon the public lands. Conversely, during winter months, the horses shift to lower, more sheltered areas to avoid the cold.


Wild horse in Utah (Photo courtesy BLM)
This unfenced or otherwise unobstructed elevational gradient is a vital requirement for the long term survival of a wild horse band and for their overall populations; and our public servant land managers should provide this for them.

Unfortunately, the federal government today, including especially the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and also the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service (USFS), is subverting the Wild, Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, Public Law 92-195 as amended, by undermining the very viability of the wild horse and burro herds they are charged to defend.

In fact, there are fewer wild horses and burros surviving on the public lands today than there were in 1971 when these herds were judged to be “fast disappearing from the American scene.” In 1974, about 56,000 wild horses and burros were counted on the public lands by the BLM and USFS, the two agencies charged with wild horse and burro protection. There would have been a comparable figure at the passage of the Act in 1971.

Today, the herds have been whittled down to about 34,500, according to 2004 census figures issued by the BLM, which is in charge of U.S. Forest Service’s horses today.

Due to intensive and extensive government contracted helicopter roundups, this relatively small population has become split into many small, non-viable herds whose future is being jeopardized by consequent threatened inbreeding or chance die-out. The threat is compounded by the widespread sterilization of those mares who are allowed to remain in the wild through the use of the immunocontraceptive drug PZP.


Cattle graze on public land in Oregon. (Photo courtesy BLM)
The small wild horse and burro population contrasts with the many millions of cattle and sheep that graze on around 90 percent of our public domain lands, including many wildlife refuges. In fact, the proportion of livestock grazing pressure outnumbers that of the wild equids by at least 150 to one and is headed for more than 200 to one with the BLM’s “plan” for America’s beautiful wild horses and wise burros.

Yet, in spite of their overindulgence, the selfish livestock interests, and the federal officials who serve them, continue to scapegoat wild horses and burros for ecological abuses on public lands for which they the livestock operators themselves are responsible! This is detailed in "Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the West," 2002. G. Wuerthner & M. Matteson, Editors. Island Press.

Because the BLM has been politically taken over by the public lands livestock industry, those officials who are charged with wild horse protection are, in fact, those who most target these returned North American native horses for practical elimination.


Wild horses and livestock compete for the same scarce resources of the range. The area around water holes can suffer serious damage when visited by large numbers of horses and cattle. (Photo courtesy BLM)
In fact, the BLM is planning on leaving only about 23,000 wild horses and burros on the public lands in the 201 herd areas that still have wild equids. At the passage of the Act in 1971, there were 303 herd areas with wild equids. Through illegal maneuvering, government officials have allowed over six million legal wild equid herd acres to be zeroed out.

In 1971 at the passage of the Act, the wild equids were protected “where [then] found;” and they still have the legal right to live in these areas according to the law. The wild equids are entitled to 41 million acres, and their population numbers in these areas should be established through a rigid, scientific monitoring of the carrying capacity of the land, as accords with the 1978 Public Rangelands Improvement Act.

These population levels should not be arbitrarily fixed as “Appropriate Management Levels” within “Herd Management Areas,” both of which are substantially less than what the Wild Horse Act requires.

Indeed, a 1990 report by the General Accountability Office, the investigative branch of Congress, indicated just this, yet neither Congress nor the federal courts have acted to correct this deplorable and extremely unjust situation. The BLM and USFS should be directed to manage the legal herd areas “principally” for the wild equids whose rights to live freely and naturally at thriving population levels they are charged to defend upon a relatively minor portion of our nation’s 261 million acres of public domain land.

In December 2004, Montana Senator Conrad Burns attached a rider to the annual Federal Appropriations Act for 2005, without debate or public input; and President George W. Bush signed this further cruel blow to our nation’s much martyred wild horses and burros. This rider requires that wild horses and burros that have been rounded up can go to slaughter buyers if they are over 10 years of age, or if they have been offered for adoption unsuccessfully three times.

This rider dooms most of the over 20,000 wild equids that now languish in government holding corrals to a cruel death. Places where they can still be seen are the bleak Palomino Valley Holding Facility north of Reno, Nevada, or the Standish Holding Facility near Susanville, California.


Wild horses corralled for adoption in Oregon (Photo courtesy BLM)
These traumatized but otherwise healthy wild horses could end up in the hands of killer buyers who could then sell them to countries where horse flesh is eaten, such as Belgium, France, and Japan, unless this nefarious rider is quickly rescinded. It bears mentioning that the horse slaughter plants in Illinois and Texas are foreign owned and that horse slaughter itself is often a very painful and prolonged process. For graphic images of slaughter, visit the

In the name of mercy and justice, these wild horses should be returned to their legal but now empty herd areas throughout the West.

Representing the majority of Americans and including Hope Ryden and Ginger Kathrens, renowned wild horse authors and film makers, much public pressure is now being brought to bear upon our public servants and representatives to do just this. For to institutionalize a market in wild horse and burro flesh would constitute the most outrageous subversion of the Wild Horse Act, a very cruel and perverse treatment of America’s last wild horses and burros.

These noble animals have done so much for humanity and for the rest of life over the ages and they should be protected as integral components of the public lands ecosystem here in America, their evolutionary cradle.

When their individual life cycles come to an end, their mortal remains should be recycled into the natural ecosystem that has sustained them and that they, in turn, help to sustain. True wild horse and burro sanctuaries of sufficient size and appropriate habitat composition must be established in order to provide for truly long-term viable populations of 1,000 or more wild equids.


Wild burro in Arizona, one of about 4,845 burros that remain in the wild in the United States. (Photo courtesy BLM)
In these areas, livestock permittees should be phased out and natural predators, such as the puma, should be allowed to fulfill their age old ecological role. Natural barriers such as cliffs and mountains should be part of the design of these sanctuaries; and when necessary, artificial boundaries such as horse-proof fences could be installed to keep the wild equids out of harm’s way, protecting them from humans, cars, gardens, and agricultural areas.

Adequate water rights must also be established so that the natural springs in these areas are not monopolized by the ranchers or developers. Neither should miners be allowed to contaminate the waters.

These sanctuaries will be magnificent regions of America where the returned native horse has been restored and allowed to enhance the native ecosystem, or life community, while keeping wildfires in check through the consumption of nutrient poor, flammable grasses, herbs and shrubs that equids are digestively equipped to handle.

People will pay to view these animals, even from a distance. But such ecotourism must be limited so as not to overly disrupt the natural lifestyles of the horses and burros.

Then the cruel helicopter roundups and corralling will become a thing of the past. Ecotourism will serve to safeguard the wild equid herds through public vigilance.

This will also prove a great and wholesome boost to the Western economy. And no enormous subsidies will be needed here, as is currently the case with the public land’s livestock industry.

Then the true intent of the Wild Horse Act will be realized. This will be a most jubilant time, a Spring time after harsh Winter’s rite of passage for us all – freedom cherishing humans and free living horses and all the other creatures of the land – to celebrate together!

{Craig Downer is a wildlife ecologist, A.B., M.S., Ph.D. studies. He is author of "Wild Horses: Living Symbols of Freedom." Contact him at: P.O. Box 456, Minden, NV 89423 USA. Email:}