Wild horses are a kind of Rorschach test in America. When you see a photo of a galloping herd of horses, manes flying and dust rising in a cloud, what comes to mind? Do you see them as noble wild animals? As would-be pets that someone might ride? As the equivalent of cattle, roaming (and devouring) fragile western rangelands?
A group of scientists who have collectively spent decades studying wild horses have this to say to policymakers and the public: Make up your damn mind.
Okay, they didn’t swear. But a recent paper in the journal BioScience comes about as close to that as you will find in a staid scientific journal. Current policy, they warn, is a confused mess that is a recipe for the costly and ineffective muddle that defines the current state of wild horse management. The “lack of sound science” isn’t what’s keeping land management agencies from effectively dealing with the horse conundrum. “The quality and quantity of research cannot overcome fundamental policy flaws,” warned the seven scientists from universities and nonprofits in Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma and New Mexico.
Evidence of the failure of the current approach, say the scientists, is in the numbers. A decade ago, two researchers warned in the journal Science that the wild horse program for the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was at a “critical crossroads.” There were 33,000 horses roaming the U.S., at least 10,000 more than what these ecosystems could sustain. Another 45,000 wild horses were in captivity at a cost of more than $45 million per year. The 30-year-bill for boarding these animals could soar to more than $1 billion by 2030 they warned.
A decade later, the number of wild horses and burros roaming free has more than doubled to north of 80,000. The number of captive animals has grown by a third. The government spent more than $500 million in the past 10 years caring for those fenced-in creatures. It looks like we passed the critical crossroad and kept right on going.
“Unfortunately not much has changed in those 10 years and the situation is worse. There are far more horses in the wild,” said Jake Hennig, the paper’s first author and a rangeland wildlife ecologist at Oklahoma State University.
Hennig and his fellow researchers point to conflicting visions of these horses as a central obstacle to progress.
In some ways, we (and federal agencies) treat these horses like wild animals. They wander across the landscape. We marvel at their natural beauty. But with lots of large wild animals we use hunting to control populations. Wildlife agencies set hunting quotas for animals such as deer in part to keep their numbers in check. But there is no season for horses.
So are they, instead, livestock? After all, they are rounded up and penned much like cattle or sheep. Except horses kept in federal facilities can’t be turned into horse meat, thanks to a 1971 federal law and a subsequent public outcry in the 1980s when it was discovered that feral horses were being adopted en masse and shipped to slaughterhouses. The country’s last horse slaughterhouse closed in 2007.
So maybe they are more like pets. After all, eating pets is frowned on. We have shelters to house abandoned cats and dogs, and animal control officers who round up nuisance animals. Sort of like what we do with wild horses.
Federal agencies are taking a page from the pet world by trying to limit wild horses’ ability to reproduce. It’s standard practice to spay or neuter Fido when you bring him home from the shelter. The BLM has begun using dart guns equipped with birth-control vaccines to make a dent in the horse numbers.
But unlike some shelters for cats and dogs, captured wild horses can’t be euthanized to deal with a flood of animals and a lack of adoptions. While birth-control vaccines sound humane, there are major logistical limitations. The effects wear off after a few years and the animals need to be given boosters. It can be tricky to get close to herds in remote, wide-open places. Unless the BLM can shrink herds by tens of thousands of animals, the birth-control approach “is doomed to be a Sisyphean task,” the scientists warned in the new paper.
Overall, today’s policy potpourri “melds strategies from both wild and domestic animal population management but lacks the teeth of either approach that make them successful,” they wrote.
Which means, in their estimation, that the answer won’t be found in a clever technical solution. Science has yet to turn up a silver bullet to make for a painless, uncontroversial resolution to the wild horse dilemma. In the end, it comes down to making a political call: Are these wild animals like deer, livestock like cows, or pets like dogs? “For the federal government to sustain healthy populations, ecosystem health, and fiscal responsibility, lawmakers must properly define how feral equids should be labeled,” they write.
Of course, if that were easy it probably would have already happened. Given the conflicted feelings surrounding these animals, settling on a single label might be seem about as appealing to politicians as taming a few thousand ornery wild mustangs.
Hennig et. al. “A crossroads in the rearview mirror: the state of United States feral equid management in 2023.” BioScience. May 4, 2023.
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