Wild Horses Run Amok

I grew up with a dozen horses on Colorado's eastern plains. In winter I busted hay bales to feed them, and, under a star-strewn sky, chopped holes in iced-over water tanks so the animals could drink. I've always believed that the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man. But not all horses are equal, and these days I question the presence of so many so-called wild horses on our public lands.

Sure, they look great. Manes flying, tails outstretched as the herds gambol across the wide-open spaces. It looks great, but unfortunately those photogenic herds with their voracious appetites and heavy hooves endanger native plants, introduce invasive species, hog precious water holes that other mammals need, and they continue—endlessly—to multiply. What kind of symbol is this for the American West?

Unlike mule deer, elk or mountain lions, wild horses aren't really wild. They are feral—turned loose. Perhaps a few rare specimens represent the genetics of Moorish ponies brought over from Spain five centuries ago, but most of today's wild horses were simply abandoned. Even today, owners continue to release domestic horses onto public lands, especially when the economy turns bad or hay prices rise.

Thanks to the Wild and Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed in 1971, herds on public lands are protected—as they should be. But what the law never considered was equine fertility. According to a December 2010 report by the Office of the Inspector General, the herd doubles in size every four years, and "each year the number of wild horses and burros the Bureau of Land Management manages increases as does the level of public interest and scrutiny."

That is why today, one of the icons of the West that has long been enshrined in myth is being scientifically re-examined. Three decades after the law was passed, we know a lot more about ecosystem balance and the carrying capacity of animals on public lands. Factor in drought, and ecological conditions on public land are getting desperate.

The places where the animals grazed in 1971 were officially designated by Congress as Herd Areas. Later, in the 1980s, the Bureau of Land Management determined which of them were suitable for long-term equine management, and these lands are now Herd Management Areas. The problem is sustainability.

The Herd Management Areas cover 32 million acres in 10 Western states with 37,000 animals on the range, but another 30,000 head of feral horses have been shipped to "long-term holding facilities." You and I as taxpayers foot the bill. Call it donkey welfare.

I'm an environmentalist, but also a pragmatist. We simply have too many feral horses and burros. And it's getting worse. The horses on the range grow by producing 20 percent new live foals each year—about 7,400 animals—but only 2,500 of them will get adopted. BLM Wild Horse and Burro Specialist Jerome Fox explains, "The BLM presently has more than 10,000 excess wild horses on the range, and new foals in 2013 will add 7,400 more. Our current level of adoptions does not begin to address our excess wild horse problem."

So, by default, we now practice equine birth control. Volunteers shoot mares with contraceptive darts that, after a few years, lose their potency. Then it's time to pull the trigger again. For wild horse lovers, that strategy far exceeds the bruising benefits of helicopter roundups, now called "gathers" by the BLM, which can run animals into dense oak brush or box canyons, and can certainly produce panic and fatigue horses as they are crowded into corrals. The Office of the Inspector General admits, "The risk that horses or burros will be injured or killed is an unavoidable consequence of gathering. Injuries and broken bones can and do result from the effort to herd, capture and transport the animals."

After the gathers, it's off to not-always pleasant pastures in Kansas, Oklahoma or South Dakota at a total taxpayer cost for the horse and burro program of $66 million annually and climbing. It's time to stop and smell the sagebrush. We need laws that allow federal agencies to sell or auction feral horses and burros to be re-cycled into food products.

Horses inspire devotion. I understand; I've placed my head against their warm flanks after currying them down. I love their smell and their soft lips, the way they blow on an apple before they eat it, and I've enjoyed the comfort of sitting in a saddle knowing that a good horse will find its way home no matter how dark the trail.

I also believe you can have too much of a good thing, and we have too many feral horses on public land.

Click here for a special, three-part series on the West's wild horse problems.

This story first appeared in High Country News.