“Fixing” the Wild Horse “Problem”*

Horse slaughter is an issue that the United States goes back and forth on. There’s a lot of neglected horses, both wild and domestic, and for some reason there’s people that think slaughter will somehow solve neglect. President Trump recently brought it up again reference the horses in holding, and although they did their best to cover both sides of the issue, the Washington Post wrote an article that implies that slaughter is the best way to fix the problem of horses in holding.
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Washington Times got one thing right: there are too many horses in holding (i.e. currently more horses in holding than in the wild). But assuming that roundups, and the removal of horses will continue, slaughter will just make room for more horses to leave the range. There’s a lot of science (including a report done by the National Academy of Science) to say that roundups are inhumane and the ways that the BLM calculates the populations of horses are outdated.
My proposal is something advocates have been promoting for years: put a pause on roundups. There’s usually one or two reasons for removing horses: 1. The range can’t support them, or 2. IT’S AN EMERGENCY!! (i.e. drought year). Another way of putting it is: the BLM is saving mustangs and burros from a painful, drawn out death due to starvation.
BLM horse 2
Assuming the BLM has a desire to use the best science to manage horses, they also have to acknowledge that nature manages populations through boom and busts. If the land can’t support all the horses one year, there’s a better chance that more horses can survive the next year. If horses don’t make it, that’s part of natural selection, and the rest of the herd will be stronger for it.
Roundups, and holding are the most expensive parts of management. By pausing roundups, that money can be spent on two things: 1. How can the populations be managed to prevent them from leaving the range? 2. What are ways to make the horses in holding more desirable to potential adopters?
The main rule of adaptive management is: unless it is natural, it MUST be reversible. If you geld a stallion, or sterilize a mare then you’re preventing them from having the ultimate purpose for a wild animal: reproduction. You don’t need to read the studies on the impacts of gelding on mustangs to know that people intentionally geld their domestic horses to make them act less like a stallion. Even if a mare is younger, if she has a foal by her side, she is usually treated as more experienced compared to another mare in her cohort.
The good news is, there already technology available, and by already I mean it’s been around for a long time. When used correctly, PZP is reversible and should give each mare a chance to have at least one foal. It’s been effective in smaller herds, so it’s past time to start using it in bigger herds.
It’s true, bigger herds have different challenges than smaller ones. It’s tempting to think that rounding them up to administer PZP is easier than finding the horses in the range to dart them, and if are rounding them up you might as well remove some. If you ask me, that’s the lazy way out.
Making larger herds feel less overwhelming is a two-step process. 1. Divide the range into smaller units. 2. If the range is still too big for the number of employees at a BLM field office, then look for volunteers. Once it’s determined how many volunteers each unit needs, the only potential initial cost would be to pay for their training, after that the only cost would be purchasing the materials needed to dart mares with PZP.
BLM horse 1
Although PZP has in impact on population, the ultimate goal is to manage solely using natural selection. Historically herds such as the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse range had years where no foals survived due to mountain lions. This year in the Pine Nut Mountain HMA, the majority of the foals have been lost to predation. Since communities often surround wild horse ranges, people need to learn to live with predators. I admit that I am not as well researched as I’d like, but I think for African lion populations, different types of fencing have been experimented with. Some ranchers have been getting different breeds of guard dogs to mimic wolf packs on their property and protect cattle. Regardless of the solution, relocation needs to be tried before hunting the predator.
Once steps have been taken to manage the population, range health should be evaluated. If the population is truly too high, then steps should be taken to increase range productivity. The most common way is adding guzzlers (water sources) for the horses and wildlife. Prescribed fires was proposed by the Billings BLM a few years ago, but as far as I know has not been used in the Pryors. Something I have not heard of is reseeding the range, or erosion control. In the Pryors, reseeding would be particularly beneficial near water. In the Pine Nut Mountains, reseeding would be beneficial where people have gone off-roading, as well as ways to prevent people from leaving the roads in their vehicles (looking at you ATVs).
If after making steps to reduce the number of horses, and improve the range the BLM still deems the number of horses too high, then bait trapping could use to remove a few horses that will have the least impact on genetics, and potential to get adopted. While it adds to the number in holding it’s at a slower rate. The BLM could focus on letting advocacy groups network about the horses, and thus increase the adoption rate for horses removed via bait trapping. However, unless it is completely known how removing a horse will impact genetics I’d rather see horses succumb to natural selection. It may sound crass, but management also needs to have a holistic approach.
Assuming the populations are being reduced on the range, that still leaves the thousands of horses in holding. To assess that, it first needs to be understood why horses aren’t being adopted. That’s a little messiest than trying to figure out how to manage the horses. The obvious problem, is even though the starting price for a mustang is less than a domestic horse, given a choice between a domestic horse that’s been trained, and has a pedigree a prospective horse owner is probably going to go for the domestic horse. The idea that herds like the Pryors have 100% adoption rate is also misleading. True, all horses in the Pryors have been adopted, but after the initial year, the adopter gets the title, and can essentially do what they want with the horse. With the BLM no longer checking on horses after a year, that puts pressure on advocacy groups to not only place horses in good homes initially, but also follow-up on and potentially rehome horses in bad situations.
I’m not going to try to debate if adoption requirements need to be higher, but at the very least, I’d like to see more effort to place the horses and burros in lasting homes. Maybe a year isn’t enough time to see if the owner is quality. At the very least, maybe there should be a requirement that the owner has to contact the BLM in the event that the horse is no longer a good fit. Advocates at Teddy Roosevelt National Park seem to have a good thing going where they get to approve potential adopters, so maybe there needs to be more effort to make sure each HMA has a strong advocacy group.
Unless people are or know an experienced trainer, potential adopters might balk at the idea of owning a mustang. The BLM already does some training, so it makes sense to expand it. There could be opportunities to partner with existing trainers, or save money by reaching out to volunteers. I know of some humane societies that let volunteers adopt an animal for free if they put in a certain amount of hours, so maybe something similar could be put into place for experienced trainers that are also volunteers.
There’s also the issue of mustangs and burros that are deemed “unadoptable”. Mustangs are adaptable, and can be trained in any riding discipline, but there’s some that the wild is the best place for them. Once they’re removed and branded they can’t be released, so a next best place for them would be a sanctuary. Periodically, I hear about the BLM accepting proposals for sanctuaries, but I rarely hear of new ones.
While I’d prefer that a mustangs be taken to a place similar to their rangeland, I think sanctuaries provide an opportunity for people unable to visit the western United States. The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary is a well-known location in SD, so I think there could be room to expand the idea in the Midwest, and eastern states. It’s easier to visit a sanctuary than a horse range, so a visitor might learn a little more, potentially could be inspired to get involved, and possibly consider adopting a mustang.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do know that bait trapping, and PZP are less expensive than helicopter removals. Using predation to managed wildlife population costs nothing. I also know that roundups are the reason why there are horses in holding. To me it seems like a no brainer: if there are no more roundups it will give the BLM more time and budget to plan adaptive management, and a chance to get more horses in holding adopted.

*All photos from the BLM internet adoption site. Even though bidding is done for these horses, there are always horses available.

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