Wild No More: The Future of American's Wild Horses

Photographs and Text by Dana Romanoff

The wild horses of the west are a national treasure and living link to America’s rich historical past but one whose future is up for grabs. Of the approximately 63,000 wild horses remaining, over half are held in captivity.

The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for protecting, managing and controlling the wild horses and their habitat. Wild horses have no predators and their herd sizes can double every four years. In order to maintain “Appropriate Management Levels” the BLM holds gathers or roundups to remove the horses from the wild and offer them for adoption. The BLM currently has more than 36,000 horses in captivity in short term corrals and long term pastures. In 2009, the BLM removed 6,300 horses from the wild and in 2010; the BLM plans to remove nearly 13,000 more.

A few thousand of the rounded up horses temporarily live at the Cañon City Correctional Facility in Cañon City, Colorado. Under the Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP) inmates care for, train and ready selected horses for adoption by the public. Some say the Wild Horse Inmate Program “takes the wild out of both the man and the mustang.” Often an inmate has one horse that he works with and gets to name. Inmates learn a trade and the responsibility of having a job while horses are taught to trust humans, and be saddle and bridal trained. Both a bit spooked at first, the tattooed and muscled inmate and the scared and wild horse learn to trust each other form a bond.

Due to the economic downturn and rising prices of hay and grain, adoptions are decreasing and costs are increasing. In 2009 holding costs were approximately $29million, or about 70% of the entire wild horse and burro budget of $40.6 million. In total, the BLM spent more than $50 million on the wild horse and burro program in 2009. In the current fiscal year, holding costs are expected to exceed $34 million out of a total wild horse and burro budget of $63.0 million.

The BLM and the Senate Appropriations Committee recognize that the holding and gathering costs have risen beyond sustainable levels. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar is actively seeking congressional support for a more sustainable national program to manage the horses. Salazar acknowledges that: “the current path of the wild horse and burro program is not sustainable for the animals, the environment, or the taxpayer” In October 2009 Salazar proposed creating a new set of wild horse preserves across the nation. This however does not solve the problem – but just moves the horses around. Other options on the table are: possible euthonization, opening up the sale and adoption of the animals to slaughterhouses, increased experimental contraceptives.

Activists feel strongly that the horses be left in the wild. They believe the wild horses are being eliminated from public land due to pressure from cattle ranchers receiving subsidies to graze the public land. The BLM has to ensure that the herd is in balance with other public range-land uses but activists feel they are giving priority to the cattle ranchers. There are 37,000 horses in designated Herd Management Areas yet over 8 million cattle on hundreds of millions of acres of public lands in western states.

The BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program is at a critical cross-roads; charged with the responsibility of managing a healthy herd yet running out of money. This year, the fate of America’s living legends is to be decided.