North America’s Gift to the World: Wild Horses

The mass removals and stockpiling of wild horses in holding is unsustainable, and it’s an issue that affects every American taxpayer, not just horse lovers. The long term cost for the BLM’s mass roundup plan over the next 10-20 years is a staggering $5 billion! Meanwhile, better, more humane and cost-effective alternatives exist.

By Amelia Perrin, HRL Guest Author

An American Icon 

Paleontologists say that the horse is North America’s gift to the world. The species evolved here and although it went locally extinct 11,000 years ago, it did not go globally extinct. Research shows that horses crossed the Bering Land Bridge and thrived in Asia and Europe. 

When the Spanish explorers brought the horse back to North America in the 1500’s, they were returning a native species to its native habitat. In the centuries since, America’s wild horses (also known as mustangs) have captured the hearts and imagination of people across the world. They are deeply entwined in American history; in fact, the West was built on their backs. 

America’s mustangs embody the values of the nation they call home: Freedom. Independence. The untamed spirit of the American West. As David Phillips wrote in Wild Horse Country, the mustangs are the ragtag misfits defying all odds, able to not only survive, but actually thrive in the vast unbroken expanse of the West. 

The love for wild mustangs unites Americans across the country. They are one of two animals protected by United States law as important symbols of freedom in our country. The other is the bald eagle. 

Congress recognized the importance of wild horses and burros to the American landscape in the 1971 Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act, which designates them as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” This unanimously-passed Act protected these beloved animals and placed responsibility for their management with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency within the Department of the Interior. 


A federally mismanaged program 

Today, wild horses and burros survive in ten western states in designated habitats called Herd Management Areas under the jurisdiction of the BLM. The agency is failing its mandate of protection and preservation by using an outdated, inhumane and costly method of managing wild horses: helicopter roundups. Each year, the BLM terrifies, traumatizes, rounds up, and removes thousands of wild horses from public lands in the West. The roundups threaten the two things free-roaming wild horses value most: family and freedom. 

Most of the captured horses and burros will spend their lives in holding facilities at taxpayer expense. Many will go to long-term pastures where they are separated by gender, while others will stay in short-term holding pens, waiting to be either sold or adopted. Not only are these holding facilities inhumane for wild horses, they also cost American taxpayers $2-5 per day per horse to feed and house them. Currently, more than 53,000 horses and burros are stockpiled off the range. 

These roundups are expensive, inhumane, and perpetuate the very problem the BLM is claiming to fix. In 2013, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) completed an impartial review of the BLM’s wild horse and burro management practices and concluded that roundups and removals actually increase population growth through compensatory reproduction. Horses respond to decreases in their population density―a consequence of helicopter roundups and removals―by reproducing at higher than normal rates. The NAS recommended a more scientific approach to wild horse management: implementing fertility control measures that prevent pregnancy and reduce horse population growth in the wild. 

Yet, eight years after the NAS review, the BLM continues to prioritize roundups, spending 70 percent of its budget to remove and warehouse wild horses and burros, while less than one percent is spent on humane fertility control. The agency’s current plan calls for accelerating roundups to remove 90,000 wild horses and burros over the next 5 years at a cost to taxpayers of nearly $1 billion. 

PZP: a more humane, less expensive alternative 

The nation’s leading wild horse advocacy group, the American Wild Horse Campaign, is succeeding where the BLM is failing. It has implemented the world’s largest fertility control program for wild horses in the Virginia Range near Reno, Nevada. The program uses PZP, a scientifically proven immunocontraceptive vaccine, to humanely reduce and stabilize population growth rates in a population of historic mustangs whose habitat is shrinking due to rapid development in the greater Reno area. 

The PZP vaccine is backed by more than 30 years of science and is used in a dozen wild horse herds. It’s up to 96 percent effective at preventing pregnancy, and costs a mere $30 per horse per year, compared to more than $2,600 to round up and warehouse one horse for just one year. (Wild horses can live for 20-30 years in captivity, and hundreds, sometimes more than 1,000, are removed in each roundup.) PZP also does not affect a wild horse’s behavior, therefore it is an essential and effective tool to ensure wild horses stay wild. 

AWHC’s successful program is a model for managing wild horses in the wild without roundups and removals from the range. If AWHC’s small but mighty team of 20 volunteers can make such a positive impact, it’s hard to believe that a $102 million-a-year government program cannot do the same for wild herds across the West. 

Help AWHC create a better future 

Polls show that 80 percent of Americans on a strongly bipartisan basis support protecting America’s wild horses on our Western public lands and oppose their slaughter. But the mass removals and stockpiling of wild horses in holding is unsustainable, and increasing numbers of these federally protected animals are entering the slaughter pipeline. 

This is not just an issue for horse lovers, it’s an issue that affects every American taxpayer. The long term cost for the BLM’s mass roundup plan over the next 10-20 years is a staggering $5 billion! Meanwhile, better, more humane and cost-effective alternatives exist. 

The system can change if enough of us speak up. With a new Administration comes a new opportunity for reform. Don’t let wild horses become just a memory recorded in the history books. Join the American Wild Horse Campaign and together, let’s keep wild horses wild. We promise to elevate your voice in this fight. 

Amelia Perrin is a life long equestrian who specializes in the communications and media relations at the American Wild Horse Campaign. Her focus is public education, increasing awareness about the plight of wild horses and advancing technology for their humane management in the wild. She lives in Northern California with her dog, Safi, and her horse Cobalt.