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The colossal backlash of wild horses on wildlife

 Wild horses problems in the West

The Western wild horse impact

Wild horse and burros are a hot topic in the West. It's an issue that environmentalists, ranchers, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials and hunters can never agree on. The BLM manages, protects, and controls wild horses and burros under the authority of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. This law authorizes the BLM to remove excess wild horses and burros to sustain the health and productivity of the public lands. The BLM also manages the nation’s public lands for multiple uses in accordance with the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act. The BLM manages wild horses and burros as part of this multiple-use mandate.

Wild horses are a constant in the West and have roamed across the landscape for a long time. Wild horses and burros have virtually no natural predators and their herd size can double about every four years. According to the BLM, there are an estimated 47,329 wild horses and 10,821 burros on BLM-managed rangelands in 10 Western states as of March 1, 2015. These populations have a direct impact on mule deer, elk and other wildlife for both habitat and water.

Wild horse quote

Compare the current population to the 2014 estimate of 40,815 wild horses and 8,394 burros, it's apparent that the wild horse and burro population is growing at an alarming rate. The growth rate from 2014 to 2015 is 16% and the the maximum appropriate management level (AML) is approximately 26,715 and the number of wild horses and burros exceeds the AML by 31,435!

Wild horse population status

 Nevada wild horses while hunting for mule deer
Photo credit: Brady Miller

The current population levels are a huge issue for big game and other wildlife for a number of reasons, most importantly because of the competition for water. While wild horses compete with wildlife for feed, the long-term drought has decreased the water availability across many western states and water sources will be heavily impacted should heavy rains not come this spring and summer. Hunters who use water holes as blind locations for hunting may see continued wild horse encounters. The BLM says that the current estimated population far exceeds the number that they have determined can exist in balance with other public rangeland resources.

Continued below.

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Wild horse and burro populations in each Western state
as of March 1, 2015*

State Horses Burros Total Max. AML
Arizona 303 4,860 5,163 1,676
California 4,395 2,946 7,341 2,200
Colorado 1,415 0 1,415 812
Idaho 633 0 633 617
Montana 172 0 172 120
Nevada 27,599 2,611 30,210 12,811
New Mexico 175 0 175 83
Oregon 4,327 49 4,376 2,715
Utah 4,550 355 4,905 1,956
Wyoming 3,760 0 3,760 3,725
Total 47,329 10,821 58,150 26,715

Source: BLM
* 2015 was the last time a full survey was conducted

Data collected from the BLM's annual Public Land Statistics.

Nevada... the hotspot for wild horses

If you've hunted in Nevada, you have likely ran into a few herds of wild horses. I can't begin to count the number of times I've been hunting in Nevada and have ran into wild horses. I have even witnessed wild horses surrounding a water source for the entire day. As I sat near this water hole, I watched the same mule deer buck try to access the water multiple times throughout the day but would not get access to water due to the horses.

Nevada's mule deer populations are at an all-time low, while wild horse and burro populations in Nevada are at an all-time high. Could that be related?

Recently the Elko Daily Free Press covered a story on the reduction of cattle grazing allotments in Nevada due to an overpopulation of wild horses. Basically the BLM is going to close some of the cattle grazing allotments in order to provide feed for wild horses. Elko County Commissioner Demar Dahl said Tim Smith of the state BLM office told him most of the allotments would be completely closed to grazing, but a few of them could be left open with 50 percent reductions in grazing levels. At this point removing more of the horses is not option, and may not happen until later this fall. 

Greg Deimel, BLM Public Information Officer said the BLM has gathered 1,750 horses in the region since 2011 and it is still overpopulated by “thousands” of horses. Getting the population down to the minimum authorized level would involve removing over 1,000 horses from each of the four herd management areas, he said.

Julie Gleason, a member of the local Resource Advisory Council to the BLM said, “The only solution is to remove horses from the ranges, but every time we get something going, the environmentalists stop us.”

“It is an absolute disgrace that the misguided whims of environmentalists are given precedence over the livelihoods of our ranching families,” said Elko County Commissioner Rex Steninger.

Did you know?

According to the BLM, most western rangelands produce only a few hundred pounds of vegetation per acre. A wild horse can eat their weight in dry forage every month, in many parts of Nevada, it can take 20 or more acres to feed one wild horse for a month!

Problem of slowing the population growth

With no natural predators, herd numbers grow at exponential rates. The National Academy of Sciences has reported that no highly effective fertility-control methods are currently available. In 2015 the BLM began investing $11 million in research to find effective methods to neuter and spay wild horses and develop longer-lasting contraceptive vaccines. With an additional 48,000 wild horses and burros in off-range (unadopted or unsold) holding facilities at a cost of over $49 million per year... it is easy to see that a solution to the increasing population needs to be found, especially because the total capacity of all BLM off-range holding facilities is 58,519 animals...

Will we see a gradual decline of mule deer and elk populations in some areas due to the increased pressure from these non-native wild horses? What will happen on a severe drought year to our native wildlife when wild horses and burros are competing for the already fragile water sources?

Hopefully, putting the problem in the spotlight will provide more incentive for the BLM to make progress toward a solution. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this issue.


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Tom W. - posted 3 years ago on 05-15-2016 09:05:48 pm

We were able to legally buy horsemeat back in the 70s in Oregon. now we are one of the few countries in the world that still don't use horses for everything from cat food too human food. It's very much like venison very lean.
I also believe most of the horses here in Oregon are feral horses not wild horses. people just let them go back in the 80s and 90s when times got hard and cost too much to feed them .
Seth H. - posted 3 years ago on 05-15-2016 09:47:29 am

I hear horse meat is delicious. Imagine how many hungry people could be fed. How would you judge a trophy horse of burro?

Eric A. - posted 3 years ago on 05-10-2016 08:31:24 pm

Don't look at numbers look at AUM'S. I used the numbers you provided & calculated AUM'S which worked out to 40,000 AUM'S for the livestock. The 2100 horses work out to 31500 AUM'S. The RSGA has 900,000 Deeded (private)acres and the grazing rights to the associated BLM. They are entitled to be there. The horses are a non native species that provide little economic or other benefit. Since the RSGA owns a ton of the property and has the "grazing AUM's that go to horses are AUM's that could and should be allotted to native wildlife. If we were able to utilize these aum's for native wildlife we could have 13,000 additional mule deer, or 13,000 additional antelope, or 4300 additional elk. Did I mention that currently the RSGA allows free access to Their deeded private property that is in Hunt areas HA 101, 102, 100, 124, 30, 31, 60, 92, 96, 93, 57, 58, 95, & 97. Also its important to point out that the majority of water sources in the affected areas were built and maintained by livestock operators. The livestock industry isn't perfect when it comes to wildlife but their a lot more friendly that feral horse nuts. Feral horses are a major threat to wildlife in SW Wyoming

Kellen G. - posted 3 years ago on 05-09-2016 01:15:06 pm

Do the wild horses and burros have any value as food? I have had domestic horse before and it was really good, they say very healthy too. Could a hunting season be used as management tool, I mean taxpayers don't have to foot the bill and states could make money on tags, or wouldn't there be any interest in hunting them? We don't have near the numbers of wild horses in Montana so I'm just curious about the issue?

Jt Quinn_1126768214029758
Jt Q. - posted 3 years ago on 05-09-2016 09:47:10 am

A 2007 article in the Wyoming Business Report indicated that the Rock Springs Grazing Association alone had between 50,000-70,000 sheep and 5,000 head of cattle on its grazing lands (that figure may be more or less four years later). By contrast, the BLM allows only 2,100 wild horses total in the five herd management areas of interest to the RSGA, a swath of land that encompasses thousands of square miles.

Eric A. - posted 3 years ago on 05-08-2016 01:37:49 pm

Southwest Wyoming horses are close to historical highs while publicly grazed livestock are close to historical lows. Meanwhile mule deer are at a historical low. Sage grouse struggle even in areas where there are not oil & gas. Coincidence, I think not. Those who live here see the damage caused by feral horses. The ironic thing is 95% of these horses have direct lineage from the livestock operators that settled this country. These horses are non-native species that have negative effects on native wildlife.

Johanna Corcoran_10204793605959886
Johanna C. - posted 3 years ago on 05-01-2016 03:31:04 pm

People need to remember that when cattle are turned out to graze it is usually only for 1-3 months, not year around. Also the ranchers are the ones maintaining the water holes at their own expense.

Real G. - posted 3 years ago on 05-01-2016 09:17:48 am

Elly May H. Do you realize that the entire cattle market was only $76 billion in 2012? Of that Nevada doesn't even make the top 10 producing states at less than $5B. So, how are you going to recover $300Billion in BLM leases? And, you want to do it from ranchers that only make $100. 00 per head profit and live on near poverty level incomes. You want to destroy the lives of families that have been and will continue to be the absolute best stewards of this land. Oh, but you don't care. You buy your beef from Whole Foods where it's produced by the Startrek Food Synthesizer.

Julie D. - posted 3 years ago on 05-01-2016 06:00:08 am

The term "welfare rancher" is patently incorrect. It costs the BLM $2 per acre to manage land that is grazed, compared to $5 per acre to land that is not grazed, saving taxpayers around $750 million per year, while the wild horse program is a bottomless pit for taxpayer dollars and returns virtually nothing to the economy. Domestic livestock on public land is managed; cattle and sheep are not on the range 24/7, 365 days a year like wild horses are. The water resources that ranchers maintain for their stock are often the only water available for native species and wild horses. Something that no one seems to mention is the impact of the extreme excess on-range population on the sage grouse. Domestic livestock's use of public land is under intense scrutiny for impact to the sage grouse, but the effects of wild horses on them are completely ignored. The wild horse mafia's hold on our rangelands and wild horse management is ludicrous. Excess horses need to be disposed of, period, instead of destroying our natural resources and gobbling up taxpayer money in long-term holding to the tune of millions of dollars. We have people, including many children and veterans, going hungry in our nation, and yet we pour millions of dollars into horses that nobody wants. They have their place on the range alongside native wildlife and domestic livestock, but the numbers need to be kept at AML. The devastation they've been allowed cause is unacceptable. On the other hand, ranchers who graze too many cattle or would be slapped with trespass fees or have their permit revoked. Wild horses are the real welfare cases.

Ellie May Hames_1174272249250012
Ellie May H. - posted 3 years ago on 04-30-2016 08:55:37 am

Determining How Much Forage a Beef Cow Consumes ...
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
As an example, if it were determined the daily dry matter intake of a group of 1,200 pound cow eating an average quality hay is 24 pounds per head and the hay that they are consuming is 88% dry matter, these cows would consume about 27 (24 pounds/.88) pounds per head per day on an as-fed basis.
Not to mention the damage done as they traverse the allotments these welfare ranchers receive but do they need these allotments? Have you seen the prices on beef lately? How about the cost to the taxpayers .
If we were to charge the going rates for both types of land it would put taxpayers out of the red and into the plus earning approx. 300 billion per year

Jt Quinn_1126768214029758
Jt Q. - posted 3 years ago on 04-30-2016 06:01:20 am

Here's the FACTS straight from the Nevada Dept. of Wildlife. "Despite recent concerns over
wildlife habitat lost to feral horse use, horse numbers
are still only a fraction of cattle numbers and, excluding
localized incidences, likely provide only a fraction
of the competition of cattle."

Jonathan D. - posted 3 years ago on 04-29-2016 04:05:21 pm
Mesa, AZ

Wild burros are terrible in western AZ. They are detrimental to the Desert Bighorn Sheep population. I've heard of aggressive burros keeping sheep from accessing water at tanks and drinkers. BLM and/or USFS needs to work together with AZGFD to get some sort of resolution in place. If not, the sheep populations will continue to struggle along the Colorado River.

ISAAC F. - posted 3 years ago on 04-29-2016 03:17:10 pm
New Mexico

In 2014 I hunted in Nevada for sheep and I could not believe my eyes to see wild horses at 12,000 ft. I saw at a minimum 70 horses, they were a nuisance as several stalks were ruined by them.
They definitely need to be removed as they also have impacts on all wildlife, fauna and flora.