Wild horses strain drought-stricken West

Nature News

86,000 horses are roaming free in the West right now, and the Department of the Interior says that 26,000 animals is the goal. The first figure is fundamentally unsustainable based on range conditions and natural resources in the Horse Management Areas (HMAs). The second figure is a pleasant thought, but unlikely to become anything more than that. Animal rights activists frequently prevent roundups and removal efforts from being carried out by filing lawsuits to keep horses on the range, where they think they belong.

But horses aren’t native to the American West. They were imported with the Spanish conquistadors in the fifteenth century. Most of the free-roaming horses that we see today in the deserts and mountains of Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, New Mexico, California, Montana, and Arizona are descendants of the great numbers of domesticated horses that were turned loose during World War II. Times were tough and many ranchers were drafted or short of resources, so they simply turned their livestock loose on the range. Horses often have no natural predators (mountain lions are about the only animal that can take them down in a wild setting), so their numbers grew and swelled to the unprecedented proportions that we see today.

55,000 formerly free-roaming horses currently live in off-range facilities. Some, like the Palomino Valley corrals in northern Nevada, are ran in a feedlot-style manner more commonly associated with cattle. The horses live in pens and are fed hay every day. Some are offered for adoption to the general public. They require specialized knowledge and training methods not possessed by the average horse owner, however. Most are unadoptable, as once an animal – especially the stallions – reach full maturity, they are usually too set in their wild ways to accept being halterbroken and ridden. 

Other horses that are removed from the rangeland live in private pastures that are contracted to the federal government as off-range housing. These horses are kept in nonreproductive herds and managed similarly to domestic livestock. They are fed hay in the winter and rotated through pastures as necessary. 

Left unchecked, the wild horse population grows by about 15-20% each year. Even though numbers are swelling, horse advocates keep promoting the idea that the horses are endangered and need to be protected. They favor fertility control methods, but attempts to administer birth control to the horses, then turn them back out on the range, have repeatedly proved to be ineffective.

When on the range, the horses compete with wildlife and domestic livestock for natural resources such as grass and water. Wildlife is a national treasure enjoyed by campers, hikers, photographers, tourists, and hunters alike.  Ranchers pay for legally permitted domestic livestock to be on the range. Wildlife numbers are managed by issuing tags that allow hunters to harvest a specific number of animals each year. Domestic cattle and sheep numbers are managed by renewing or revoking animal numbers at regular intervals. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) biologists must approve these increases or reductions.

Wild horses are the only animal population on the rangeland that is allowed to run rampant, disregarding science and reason. And thanks to the horse advocates, their numbers have been allowed to swell to unsustainable numbers that threaten their survival and the health of the rangeland.

2 thoughts on “Wild horses strain drought-stricken West

  1. Held all but the best stallions and the population numbers will fall naturally. Turn them back out after they’re fielded, gather the weanlings and put them up for adoption as they’re easier to handle and train making sure the studs are fielded.

  2. I agree with Christina.We adopted a 9 month old filly and she turned out to be a very trainable animal. she came when she was called and responded to us and our dogs as her herd animals

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