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Scourge of the West: ‘Wild’ vs. feral horses on public lands

Wild horses kick up dust as they run at a watering hole outside Salt Lake City in 2018. (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press file)

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has it wrong. Like other well-meaning, environmental-leaning Americans, he thinks that wild horses on federal public lands deserve special considerations. It’s time to stop and smell the sagebrush. It’s time to look at drought and ecological habitats, not just flying manes and pounding hooves.

Polis has written U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland urging her to take a “more active, co-managerial role” in managing wild horses and burros on Bureau of Land Management land in Colorado. He’s asked for a “more thoughtful and inclusive process.” I agree. Let’s start with the “more thoughtful part.”

Of the many myths of the American West, one of the most enduring is that of wild mustangs rich with Spanish and Andalusian blood living undisturbed on sagebrush plains. Stallions carefully protect their mares, and foals gambol under a wide Western sky. Burros hide out in canyons, wisely watching water holes and all is equine equipoise. The reality, however, kills the myth.

The Spanish brought horses north from Mexico in 1540. Centuries later, thousands of horses and burros were abandoned during westward migration, and after the homesteading era, allowed to graze for themselves. Feral horses on Western ranges now consume 32 pounds of forage a day plus valuable water. No rare Spanish mustangs remain.


Wild horses are really just feral animals, and yet the mustang myth continues and is now codified in federal law. Americans are confused and misinformed when they try to protect wild horses.

“Where some saw wild horses as one of the last remnants of a bygone era and a symbol of the American West, others viewed them as the shoddy remains of frontier history, a nuisance to ranchers and land managers alike,” said historian Leisl Carr Childers.

In 1971, Congress passed the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which would have enormous consequences for the BLM, whose lands are the sagebrush sea of the American West.

“The 1971 act led to numerous court battles, and it gave wildlife advocates, humane societies and environmentalists a powerful tool with which to attack the BLM’s grazing program,” said historian James R. Skillen.

Wild horses walk to a watering hole outside Salt Lake City in 2018. (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press file)

Where wild horse herds were found in remote locations across the West in 1971, those locales are now Herd Management Areas, or HMAs.

“The bureau was struggling to reconfigure multiple use to include wild horses as a separate category of animal,” said Childers. “Branded neither wildlife nor livestock, wild horses under the new law were declared a national heritage species. However, no one had any real idea what that meant in terms of management.”

In 1971, horse fanciers could not conceive of what would happen when the wild horse population would dramatically rise at a 20% annual rate, devastating grasses and endemic plants and competing with wild animals and domestic cattle and sheep.

No one contemplated wild horses overgrazing their ranges. Critical provisions for balancing horse herds with delicate desert landscapes were not considered or written into law. Now, we’ve learned how aggressive feral herds can be. Motion-activated game cameras at Mesa Verde National Park have filmed stallions successfully defending water holes against bull elk.

The BLM has herd management areas across western states, including in Colorado: the Piceance-East Douglas HMA southwest of Meeker; the Sand Wash Basin HMA 48 miles west of Craig; and the Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range north of Grand Junction. There’s another BLM herd in Disappointment Valley formed when the market collapsed for horses no longer needed by the U.S. Army after the end of World War I.

A BLM brochure says, “Some of the Little Book Cliffs horses can trace their ancestry back to Indian ponies, but the majority are descendants of horses who escaped from or were turned loose by ranchers and farmers.” In other words, the animals are mostly feral, not “wild” with ancestral bloodlines.

Wild horses occupy a watering hole outside Salt Lake City in 2018. (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press file)

Solutions include rounding up the animals and putting them up for adoption, or BLM staff members can attempt birth control by shooting contraceptive darts using porcine zona pellucida, or PZP, but to be effective that must be done to mares every year for five years.

With inadequate birth control, no castration of stallions and a herd population that grows dramatically each year, the humane option of horse and burro adoption remains attractive but equally expensive. Many animals are never adopted and have little economic value. Animals not adopted can cost upward of $50,000 each for their lifelong care.


I grew up with a dozen horses on Colorado’s eastern plains. In winter, I busted hay bales to feed them and under a star-strewn sky, chopped holes in iced-over water tanks so the animals could drink. When I left for college, we sold the string, but I’ve always believed that the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.

Sure, they look great. Manes flying. Tails outstretched as herds race across open spaces, but in the process, they trample native plants, introduce invasive species, hug rare water holes that other mammals need and continue to multiply. One of the icons of the West, enshrined in myth, is now scientifically being re-examined. We know more about ecosystem balance and the carrying capacity of animals on public lands.

The BLM controls 180 HMAs. About 30,000 head of feral horses from BLM land are in “long-term holding facilities,” where animals have been shipped east. You and I as taxpayers are footing the bill for their final years. Call it donkey welfare. After the gathers, it’s off to pleasant pastures in Kansas, Oklahoma or South Dakota at a total taxpayer cost for the horse and burro program of $66 million annually and climbing.

Wild horses drink from a watering hole outside Salt Lake City in 2018. (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press file)

I know horses. I’ve placed my head against their warm flanks after currying them down. I love their smells and their soft lips, the way they blow on an apple before they eat it, and I’ve enjoyed the comfort of sitting on a saddle knowing that a good horse will find its way home no matter how dark the trail. I also believe you can have too much of a good thing, and we have too many feral horses on public land.

Finally, in 2019, the BLM tried a new strategy – paying $1,000 a head for Americans to adopt wild horses in an Adoption Incentive Program. The financial incentive worked, but not as planned. In May 2021, The New York Times reported: “Records show that instead of going to good homes, truckloads of horses were dumped at slaughter auctions as soon as their adopters got the federal money. A program intended to protect wild horses was instead subsidizing their path to destruction.”


In the hottest summer yet recorded, 2021, the Sand Wash herd in northwest Colorado faced death because of dried up water holes forcing the BLM to remove more horses. As the BLM stepped up its plans to remove 733 horses and treat 25 with fertility controls, the Sand Wash Basin Wild Horse Advocacy Team (SWAT) said, “We are angry and saddened.” The American Wild Horse Campaign argued that the horses should be left alone and instead the BLM should “prioritize the removal of privately owned cattle and sheep that graze in federally designated wild horse and burro habitat.”

The latest figures on America’s public lands enumerate 79,000 wild horses and 15,000 burros roaming 26 million acres across 10 states. Kathleen Parker writes in The Washington Post, “Surely a nation of entrepreneurs and animal lovers can figure out ways to preserve and protect these iconic symbols of freedom and wild beauty.”

Like Gov. Polis, Parker fails to understand the hard ecological realities of too many hooves pounding too little range. If it is cruel to round up feral horses, it is also cruel to destroy Western landscapes, which will take generations to restore – if ever.

And what about those ranch families whose income depends on cattle and sheep that have less and less to eat? It is past time to puncture the mustang myth. There are other valuable symbols of our Western heritage.

Andrew Gulliford, an award-winning author and editor, is professor of history at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at andy@agulliford.com.