Wild horses capture people’s imaginations, and across the country, from urban centers to rural communities, they resonate with our sense of American identity. Something about the idea of a horse running free across the range inspires romantic ideals of freedom. Iconic to the culture of the American West, wild horses represent the independence, strength, and grace upon which this country is built. Today they also stand at the center of a battle over resources being waged across the West. No other issue in America- aside from the Vietnam War- has ever generated such an outpouring of public letters as the plight of our nation’s wild horses.
In 1971, so many letters poured into Congress over the threat to our nation’s wild horses that Congress unanimously passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act to protect these animals. The primary agency appointed to implement the federal law, is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM, finds itself in the unenviable position of managing various competing interests for public lands including livestock, demands for oil and gas, wildlife, recreation, and wild horses. In 2001, after decades of failed herd management policies, the BLM began implementing an aggressive wild horse removal campaign. In 2004, the 1971 Free-Roaming Act was surreptitiously amended, opening the door to the sale of thousands of wild horses to slaughter for human consumption abroad.
Today, these animals stand at the center of an age-defining controversy where the demands of modern development collide with the needs of the wild. Every year, the BLM rounds up thousands of wild horses by helicopter and transfers them to holding facilities across the country in order to reduce the horses’ impact on public lands. Currently over 45,000 horses sit in holding pens at a cost to US taxpayers of approximately $75 million a year. For the first time in history, there are more wild horses in holding pens than there are in the wild. A small number of these horses will be adopted, while the rest live out their lives in the holding facilities or end up going to slaughter for human consumption in Europe and the Pacific Rim where horse meat is considered a delicacy.
Tensions run high on this issue between animal advocates, ranchers, and government officials. Some people think they should be left alone, some that they should be removed, some that they should be eaten. Horse advocates are concerned with the humane treatment of the animals and with preserving wild horses in viable free-roaming herds as part of our national heritage. Cattle ranchers are feeling the crunch of development and a disappearing way of life, and are concerned with maintaining their access to grazing on public land and control over water sources. The government subsidies for grazing on public lands are often a lifeline for keeping a working cattle ranch afloat. Much of the contention centers on demands for a limited water supply, the lifeblood of the West, that is increasingly pressured by more and more straws sipping from it. The one thing that people on all sides of the fence agree on is that the current band-aid solution isn’t working.
Financially viable and environmentally sound alternative solutions to the way in which wild horses are currently managed do exist, and these depend in large part on consensus building and the public will. At the forefront of viable solutions is in-the-wild management, which would keep wild horses on the range and save taxpayers millions annually by avoiding the mass removal and stockpiling of wild horses. To be successful, in-the-wild management requires effective fertility control, cooperation between ranchers and environmental/animal advocates, and legislation that makes it possible.
The story of these horses represents a battle that is being waged across the West where demands for modern development are increasingly in conflict with the conservation of the natural world. It is a grain of sand through which to look at larger issues: How do we reconcile the myth of the Wild West with the reality of the American West today? How do we choose to develop within the context of limited resources? What is a sustainable and ethical way to manage a wildlife population? How does our society best manage land that belongs to all of us?