Wild horses are a symbol of our public-land failures
Wild horses are beautiful, beloved, controversial, expensive for taxpayers and a headache for public land managers. They are also a symbol of the public’s increasingly complex relationship with the public land. In his special investigation, Republic reporter Brandon Loomis told the story of the West’s wild horses and revealed the competing realities and perceptions that make this a multi-faceted issue.
Wild horses have strong supporters who say they are historic residents of the wide open spaces and deserve to be left alone on public lands.
The animals also have equally impassioned detractors who say they are feral livestock that should be rounded up and removed — maybe even sold as meat.
Straddling this divide are public land managers whose job is defined by the federal law protecting the horses and complicated by competing uses of public lands.
Taxpayers cover the cost of rounding up horses that the Bureau of Land Management thinks exceed the land’s grazing capacity and housing those horses in rented pastures or corrals — often for decades.
The entire federal wild horse and burro program costs about $80 million a year, some of which goes toward birth control efforts aimed at slowing the growth rate of herds that occur in 10 states.
That means those who rarely venture out of city limits have a stake in what has been a decades-long dispute over how to deal with horses that reproduce easily and have few natural predators.
Ranchers and hunters see them as competition for animals they would rather see on the public lands — cows and game. These groups, which provide habitat enrichment, such as water, also see the horses as poaching on the range improvements meant for other animals.
Meanwhile, there is the allure and iconography of the Old West with its wide open spaces and promise of limitless horizons. There are few better symbols of that romantic vision than wild horses, some of which become comfortable enough with humans to make poignant photographic models.
The public uproar when Tonto National Forest officials wanted to round up 100 horses from the Salt River reached Congress and resulted in a number of elected officials taking the side of the horses. Land managers were hobbled.
But land managers were not proposing to move the horses for the sake of cattle or hunters in this case. It was to protect the habitat and public safety. What's more, they said these horses were escaped livestock, not historic relics.
The reaction to a proposal to move those horses demonstrates how popular — and possibly inaccurate — symbolism of the wild horses really is.
Even though wild horses are often portrayed as the descendants of animals that escaped from the early Spanish conquistadors, genetic testing has found only five out of 175 herds tested had genes linking them to the Spanish, according to Loomis’ reporting.
But the romance remains. So does the resentment. And the cost to the public.
Federal land managers have attempted for years to limit herd size through birth control, but available methods are costly and impractical.
The tension between those who want horses removed — whether for environmental, ranching or hunting reasons — and the federal law that protects the horses from slaughter has led to a costly and unkind consequence in which formerly wild creatures are held captive at public expense.
The U.S. government has about 45,000 wild horses and burros that have been taken from the wilds of the West. Adoption rates for these animals are falling.
About 31,000 of these horses are kept on pasture rented for an average of $2 per day per horse. The rest live in corrals at a cost of about $5 a day.
The BLM says about another 27,000 of the estimated 55,000 horses and 12,000 burros in the 10 western states should be removed. You do the math.
The ping-pong over how to manage these horses is typical of public land management choices and conflicts.
Increasingly, many people feel the value of America’s wide, open spaces for spiritual, emotional and recreational endeavors exceeds its value for strictly consumptive and extractive uses.
The wild horses are a powerful symbol of that conflict and of our collective failure to resolve it.
A wild horse runs on U.S. Forest Service land near the Mogollon Rim in Arizona.