Dr. Joanna Grossman shares her thoughts on the latest push to remove wild horses from the western states.
By Joanna Grossman, Ph.D.
It’s mustang roundup season, the time of year when the federal government mounts a full-blown assault on our nation’s wild horses — chasing them down with helicopters and permanently removing them from their homes to make way for ranching, oil and gas development, mining, and more. In recent months, a number of inefficient, taxpayer-funded roundups — unprecedented in their scope — have been launched in several western states.
The largest roundup in Colorado’s history began this month in the 158,000-acre Sand Wash Basin, despite Gov. Jared Polis imploring Interior Secretary Deb Haaland not to remove horses from this area. Mounting political pressure ended the roundup abruptly, but not before more than 680 wild horses were forced by low-flying helicopters into the trap site, and a six-month-old foal, who had arrived there without his mother, was killed.
The Bureau of Land Management — the federal agency tasked with managing the vast majority of wild horses — euthanized the young colt due to supposed “preexisting” injuries on his legs, even though he had survived on the range and wandered on his own to the government-run corral.
In July, the BLM’s roundup of the Onaqui herd outside of Salt Lake City generated significant controversy. Admired for their approachability and stunning array of colors, these wild horses are among the most popular and photographed in the country, if not the world. Despite massive public outcry, the BLM slashed the Onaqui herd by more than 70 percent.
As early as next month, the BLM, bowing to pressure from a powerful livestock industry group, plans to remove more than 3,500 wild horses from the southern Wyoming checkerboard region in what could be one of the largest roundups in the agency’s history.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service, which manages a smaller number of wild horses, is currently rounding up several hundred from the Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory in Modoc National Forest in California. The agency previously sparked outrage among the public and elected officials after it announced that it would begin rounding up and selling horses from California’s largest herd for as little as $1 apiece without any prohibitions on slaughter.
Most Americans are likely unaware that this is how the government “manages” our federally protected wild horses — through brutal helicopter pursuits that result in injuries and fatalities, terrified foals being separated from mothers, family bands being torn apart, and horses run to exhaustion in extreme temperatures. The BLM spends two-thirds of its $115 million wild horse and burro program budget on this strategy, even though the National Academy of Sciences has noted that this cycle of mass removals is counterproductive, because it actually accelerates population growth rates.
Federal regulators claim that clearing horses from the landscape is necessary to maintain an “appropriate management level” for ecological health. Yet cattle, which outnumber horses and burros by 28 to 1 — even 90 to 1 in some years — are left unchecked, despite causing serious environmental degradation.
When Haaland was appointed to lead the Interior Department earlier this year, animal protection advocates expressed optimism that she would bring a bold new vision since she had supported treating wild horses humanely while representing New Mexico in Congress.
But while Haaland’s BLM has shown a willingness to put the brakes on some of the more alarming plans floated by the Trump administration — namely, proposals to surgically sterilize horses using an outdated procedure that involves severing a mare’s ovaries — the agency has apparently endorsed the previous administration’s strategy of accelerating mass removals (at an estimated cost of nearly a billion dollars over five years). Today, the BLM is on track to gather nearly double the number of wild horses — 18,000 — compared to the last fiscal year.
These euphemistically termed “gathers” are business as usual for the feds, but they don’t have to be. Earlier this summer, House lawmakers set aside $11 million in funding for the BLM to scale up the use of proven and safe fertility control methods to manage horses on the range as an alternative to stampeding them and sequestering them in long-term holding facilities for the rest of their lives.
As a lawmaker, Haaland championed broadening the use of the PZP immunocontraceptive vaccine on wild horses, an approach that has been around for decades. By the BLM’s own admission, the vaccine is 90 percent effective at preventing pregnancy. Yet the agency has never deployed it widely, opting to perpetuate a vicious and expensive cycle of roundups rather than adopt a more humane and proactive management strategy.
Congress is expected to finalize spending bills for the 2022 fiscal year in the coming months. If the BLM continues to double down on reckless roundups that endanger wild horses, lawmakers must intervene to reflect the will of the American public. These symbols of the wide-open American West deserve to live safely on the range with their herds.
Joanna Grossman, Ph.D., is the equine program manager and senior advisor for the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C.