No home on the range

Future of the West’s mustangs remains unsettled

A wild mustang moved behind his band across the desert south of Chimney Reservoir in Humboldt County in September 2016.

A wild mustang moved behind his band across the desert south of Chimney Reservoir in Humboldt County in September 2016.


Visit to see details from recent and current roundups.

There are an estimated 100,000 wild horses in the Western United States, but only a little more than half of them actually live in the wild of the vast range lands. The rest are kept in corrals and long-term pastures run by the Bureau of Land Management—whose job it has been to manage wild horses since 1971.

These numbers represent a real and growing problem.

In 2015, the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program spent nearly two-thirds of its roughly $72 million annual budget on housing the horses it has taken out of the wild. And, as of August 2016, the agency estimated its holding facilities were nearly 80 percent full. What’s more, according to its figures, the number of horses left on the range is fully two times what’s ideal.

The BLM’s estimate of how many horses the range can sustain “in balance with other public land resources and uses” is 26,715. The number of horses in Nevada alone exceeds this total by nearly 20 percent. In fact, Nevada has the most wild horses of any state by far—almost 32,000. The next highest number is 6,500 in Wyoming.

Last September, the Wild Horse and Burro Program’s nine-person advisory board recommended the BLM euthanize or sell to slaughter the more than 40,000 horses currently in captivity. The recommendation made headlines across the country, and the agency responded quickly—issuing an online statement avowing it “does not and will not euthanize healthy animals.”

That was almost six months ago.

In an email interview, BLM spokespersons Jenny Lesieutre and Jason Lutterman provided an update on what’s happened in the interim, noting that “the BLM has acquired more off-range pastures to reduce the number of horses in higher-cost corrals.”

An October article in South Dakota’s Butte County Post about one of these pasture acquisitions, reported a Powerball jackpot winner had agreed to let the BLM pasture a herd of 917 horses on roughly 50 square miles of privately owned grassland 75 miles north of Rapid City, South Dakota—for a price of $2 per horse, per day.

The BLM also puts some wild horses up for adoption and sale. According to Lesieutre and Lutterman, until the BLM has “better tools to manage wild horses on the range,” the agency has capped the number of horses that can be removed each year at 3,500, “about the same number that leave the system through adoption, sales and natural mortality.”

In 2015, the BLM reported the roundup of 3,093 horses—nearly half from Nevada. The same year, 2,331 were sold or adopted.

Roundups have long been controversial—garnering both media attention and outcry from advocates, who allege mistreatment of the animals and a lack of transparency on the BLM’s part. Author and wild horse advocate Terri Farley has witnessed several roundups and is among those who believe the BLM misrepresents the facts of them. She’s particularly concerned by how the BLM classifies horse deaths. There are two categories under which a death might be filed—“acute” and “chronic.” Acute injuries are those directly related to a roundup—broken necks, trampling, etc. Chronic deaths include horses that are euthanized because of things like blindness and poor body condition.

Farley believes the BLM downplays the overall number of deaths by dividing them into these categories and that the reasons for euthanasia are often trumped up. A look at reports from several individual roundups in the last two years shows the number of horses killed varied from less than one percent to closer to five. On its “Myths and Facts” web page, the BLM cites cumulative 2014 statistics, which show 17 out of a little more than 1,700 horses—or slightly less than one percent—died that year. But information from an advocacy group, Wild Horse Preservation, suggests additional horses died in 2014 after being rounded up. Records obtained by the group under the Freedom of Information Act indicate 75 horses captured during the Checkerboard roundup in Wyoming died in captivity in the months to follow.

To be clear, roundups are not the preferred method of population control—for anyone. As the spokespeople mentioned, the BLM is exploring what it considers “better tools.” This includes “evaluating the safety, feasibility and effectiveness of spaying and neutering on-range wild horses” and the development of “longer-lasting fertility control vaccines.”

There are already a few vaccines available. Porcine zona pellucida (PZP) is made from a protein found in pig ovaries. It’s administered through a dart and, according to several scientific studies, can be up to 90 percent effective. The BLM’s search for alternatives is driven by the logistics of administering the vaccine, which—according to Lesieutre and Lutterman—a 2013 National Academy of Sciences study found was not “highly effective, easily delivered, and affordable.”

An independent group near Gardnerville disagrees. Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates—a non-profit—began darting mares with PZP in 2012. In 2014, a pilot program to control the population of wild horses near the Pine Nut Mountains was officially established with the blessing of the Wild Horse and Burro Program’s Nevada office.

The program was established at no cost to BLM. The Pine Nut group’s members use donated funds to pay for PZP training and certification from another nonprofit, the Science and Conservation Center in Billings, Montana. They also use fundraising to pay for the vaccines, which according to Deb Walker, the group’s president, cost about $25 per dose. A mare needs two doses in the first year, and one every year thereafter.

But it has been almost a year since the group’s members have darted a mare. Their carbon dioxide powered dart guns—some on loan from the BLM—have sat unused, save for target practice, since another advocacy group threatened the BLM with a lawsuit. Friends of Animals cited concerns over alleged side effects of the treatment and a belief that the program violated a judge’s court order forbidding the roundup of horses from the area east of Gardnerville.

Now, members of the Pine Nut group worry the PZP they’ve administered to 36 different mares from four bands is wearing off. But they may soon get the green light to pick up where they left off. According to John Axtell, a wild horse and burro specialist with the BLM’s Nevada office, the agency is working on a new environmental assessment that could clear the way for darting to resume as early as this spring.

In the meantime, some are wondering how a new secretary of the interior will factor into things. In 2009, as a Montana state legislator, Ryan Zinke co-sponsored a bill that ultimately cleared the way for construction of slaughterhouses for privately owned horses and made any person who unsuccessfully files an action against the operation of one liable for financial losses resulting from any injunction that halts its operations. The BLM’s spokespeople said until Zinke—now a U.S. House member—is confirmed as interior secretary, “it is too soon to foresee what changes may or may not be forthcoming.”