Wild horses deserve a home in the west 

By Scott Beckstead

I live in a rural county heavily dependent on ranching and agriculture, and though I often hear people talk about threats from large predators like bears or lions, I never hear complaints about wild horses living on our public lands.

Instead, I hear that these animals are living symbols of the American West. From Portland urbanites to Idaho ranchers, and also from the many Indigenous peoples whose forebears called the horse their brother, no one can imagine this region without herds of mustangs and burros running free.

From the federal government it’s a different story. Hewing to a strong pro-livestock bias, the Bureau of Land Management has for decades spun a false narrative about an “overpopulation” of equines that, the agency claims, are in danger of starving and destroying their habitat. The agency would have us dismiss what photographers, tourists and advocates document every day: thriving, robust families of horses living peacefully on vast stretches of federal lands.

The reality is that wild horse populations are negligible compared to the vast numbers of cattle and sheep, to which the BLM allocates up to 80% of forage on designated wild horse Herd Management Areas. The agency complains that 80,000 wild equines is too many, yet omits mention of the 1.5 million cattle and sheep it allows to graze on public lands at the taxpayer-subsidized rate of just $1.35 per animal unit month.

Two prominent, mainstream environmental organizations — Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Western Watersheds Project — exposed the BLM’s own grazing data that reveals commercial livestock, not wild horses, responsible for overgrazing.  These organizations were joined by the Sierra Club last November in calling on the BLM to stop scapegoating wild equids for rangeland damage that is attributable to vast herds of beef cattle and flocks of sheep.

Then there’s the tired debate about whether wild equines are native to the West. The ancestors of today’s wild herds evolved on the North American landscape over millions of years, paleontologists say. It is true that wild horses were wiped out from their home turf at the end of the last Ice Age — likely by human hunters — but some Indigenous tribes insist the horse never completely died out.

Whether they are a native species that never left this region or are native species reintroduced to their birthplace, wild equines evolved on this landscape. Because cows evolved in the cooler temperate pastures and forests of Europe, they struggle to survive in our harsh, arid ecosystems, while wild horses and burros prosper.

Driving around the West you’ll pass thousands of skinny cows while families of vigorous, healthy horses thrive on public rangelands. And while cattle congregate and trample sensitive riparian areas, wild horses will travel up to 20 miles a day in search for forage. With their simple digestive systems, they help spread native grasses far and wide.

Burros even serve as ecosystem engineers, digging wells in parched desert areas that provide a water source for other wild species. Horses and burros are prey animals that also serve as a food source for native carnivores, which, if spared from extermination to benefit livestock, help regulate wild horse populations.

The horse co-evolved in North America with the lion, the wolf and the grizzly. It’s instructive that while nobody laments the loss of a wild foal to a lion or a wolf, federal officials react fast when a steer or a sheep gets picked off by one of them. 

The federal government has a built-in bias against wild horses no matter the critical ecological role they play in promoting rangeland health. The BLM’s wild horse program is largely staffed by self-styled cowboys with a “round ‘em up” mentality for the equines and a “graze-at-your-will” attitude toward livestock.

Where necessary, wild equines can be managed humanely on the landscape with proven fertility control or an emergency gather. But these are the exceptional circumstances. 

It’s time to reject the BLM’s false narrative that wild horses harm public lands and embrace an approach that truly protects them. Wild horses and burros belong right where they are.

Scott Beckstead is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. The writer lives in Oregon where he teaches classes in animal law and wildlife law. He also serves as director of campaigns for Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy. 

Wild horse 5939 available for adoption/courtesy BLM

This column was published in the following newspapers:

09/19/2022 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
09/20/2022 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
09/20/2022 Vail Daily Vail CO
09/20/2022 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
09/20/2022 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
09/21/2022 Fort Morgan Times Fort Morgan CO
09/21/2022 Aspen Times Aspen CO
09/21/2022 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
09/23/2022 Glenwood Post Independent Glenwood Springs CO
09/23/2022 Casper Star Tribune Casper WY
09/23/2022 Montana Standard Butte MT
09/23/2022 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
09/26/2022 Mountain Journal Bozeman MT
09/28/2022 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
09/28/2022 Adventure Journal CA
09/29/2022 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
09/29/2022 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
09/29/2022 Twin Falls Times News Twin Falls ID
01/05/2024 Kingman Daily Miner Kingman AZ
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Jennifer Dobbins
1 year ago

I thank you from the bottom of my heart for this article.

Kerry Gubits
1 year ago

If it were up to me, I’d get rid of both wild horses and cows and bring the bison herds and the prairie grasslands back. Hollywood romanticizing about the West is in direct conflict with science and sustainability. We’ve completely distorted the biosphere in pursuit of ridiculous ideas. Trying to justify the maintenance of an exploded wild horse population by referring to their pre-invasive introduction as an extinct species, or framing the argument as cows vs horses, are both specious instruments of debate. But then, you teach law, right?

1 year ago
Reply to  Kerry Gubits

The bison evolved in Asia, and migrated here. The horses evolved here.

1 year ago
Reply to  Kris

I would ditch this argument. It doesn’t stand on all four feet. It can be said that both horses and dogs evolved in North America. As in the Family Equidae and Canidae, or the genera Equus and Canis, respectively. Equus (genus) callabus (species) did not evolve in North America. An ancestor, an entirely different species, did. The “horses evolved here” argument would be imperfectly akin to pointing out that since Canidae/Canis evolved in North America, though even Canis lupus did not, that therefore feral domesticated dogs somehow belong on the landscape. Of course, gray wolves along with bison, indigenous peoples, and many others, all migrated here naturally, and long, long ago, making them natives unquestionably. Aside: there is evidence that domesticated dogs descended from an extinct wolf species, rather than from extant gray wolves themselves – https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aba9572

Lindsay Mann
1 year ago

A really good piece. Thank you Mr Beckstead.

Leslie Young
1 year ago

Scott knows what he’s talking about and anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is skewing the facts!

Alice Stagg
1 year ago

Mr. Beckstead makes all valid and true points. Too bad the BLM and its enablers are so corrupted and uninterested in actually managing the public lands properly. 5 star rating for truth.

Purtzer Jane
1 year ago

Thanks so much for giving an accurate and complete picture of the wild horses and their land!

Carolyn Borkowski
1 year ago

Unless enough voices cry out in support of the wild horses and other species struggling for survival the day WILL come when our western public lands are devoid of plant life and animal life, due to centuries of unchecked livestock grazing, human greed, and ignorance. Thank you, Scott, for being one of those very strong voices.

Leslie Hassett
1 year ago

I appreciate Mr. Beckstead’s accurate portrayal of wild horses, their relationship to the land, and the injustice that is inflicted upon them by the United States Government agency, the BLM. I’ve looked into these statistics myself at the original sources and they can be verified, despite the government’s increasing attempt to hide them and remove them from the internet. I appreciate that Mr. Beckstead does allow for the possibility of humane “management” on the range with proven (not experimental) fertility control and emergency (not made up emergencies) gathers but that those ought to be extremely rare. I appreciate Mr. Beckstead’s reasoned voice on the issue of wild horses. Thank you for this piece.

1 year ago

I have been trying since ’06 to save the Wilds, but the ranchers and their powerful and heavily paid lobbyists have won, so far………and We, the public pay to house them in HMAs or for helicopters to round-up.and kill lthose who fall, saying it is a “pre-existing condition”

Lindsay Mann
1 year ago

Excellent artice, thank you. So full of common sense and truth.

Chuck Cavaness in New Mexico
1 year ago

Scott, you need to ask the public and the ranchers in towns close to the wild horses. Or ask people who go hiking and camping on BLM land. In those areas with high horse populations they are destroying the range.
BLM Agents tell ranchers how many cattle they can put out on their allotments but their is little management of the horses. They are way over populated and cost exorbitant amounts to care for on collection facilities. People that live in the areas that have wild horses feel they should be culled heavily as the horses are not fat and sassy. Due to over grazing by them and severe drought, the government is feeding them in some areas to keep these horses alive. What a mess brought on by people who live in cities like Portland, New York and other metropolitan areas that think they know best. The height of arrogance.

5 months ago

Our local newspaper just printed this article yesterday. Do we really have too many wild horses or have we been led to believe that? I’m from Wisconsin and the first time I saw wild horses was from a helicopter in northern California. I was in awe and that picture and feeling will stay with me the rest of my life. I will always support wild horses and this article makes me believe it is the right thing to do!

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