US Rounding up Nearly 18,000 Wild Horses, Double 2020 Total, Amid Western Drought

The severe drought seizing the U.S. West has led U.S. land managers to begin efforts to capture about 50 percent more wild horses than originally planned across Nevada, Oregon and Colorado.

The bureau already has gathered 1,200 animals this year and originally intended to round up about 12,000. A new push would bring the total to about 18,000 across 10 Western states from Montana to California.

Ranchers already have volunteered changes to reduce and rotate grazing on federal lands during a drought, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association said.

Kaitlynn Glover, the association's executive director of resources, called the extreme weather "more pervasive and dramatic than we have seen in years."

"These removals are critical for the horses as well as the health of the rangelands," she said in an email to the Associated Press. "Even in times where resources are plentiful, these overpopulated herds cause serious damage to the landscape."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Wild Horse Capture, U.S. West
Federal land managers say they're beginning to capture about 50 percent more horses than they originally planned this year across public U.S. rangeland across the West because of severe drought conditions. In this July 13, 2008, file photo, a livestock helicopter pilot rounds up wild horses from the Fox & Lake Herd Management Area in Washoe County, Nevada, near the town on Empire. Brad Horn, File/AP Photo

The Bureau of Land Management said the emergency roundups that began Sunday in Oregon and Monday in Nevada concentrate on places where "chronic overpopulation" of the herds "already has stretched the available food and water to its limits."

"As one of the agencies charged with the responsibility to protect and manage America's wild horses and burros, the BLM is prepared to take emergency action where we can in order to save the lives of these cherished animals," said Nada Wolff Culver, the bureau's deputy director for policy and programs.

The agency is committed to "continuing our efforts to reduce overpopulation across the West and achieve healthy, sustainable herd sizes that are more capable of withstanding severe conditions, including prolonged drought, which are becoming more frequent due to climate change," she said in announcing the effort Monday.

Horse advocates say the emergency roundups that will continue into September are being driven by pressure from ranchers who don't want the mustangs competing with their livestock for limited forage and water.

One advocate said she's especially disappointed the Biden administration is continuing the policies of former President Donald Trump and previous administrations that prioritized removal of horses that are federally protected without reining in the number of cattle and sheep grazing on the same land.

"Profit-driven interests ravage the landscape, and we blame the horse," said Laura Leigh, president of the nonprofit group Wild Horse Education.

"Absolutely nothing has changed under the Biden administration except we are being spoon-fed a dose of greenwash that they 'care' about the environment and wild things," she said.

The bureau said the estimated 86,000 free-roaming mustangs and burros on federal lands is three times what the ecosystem can sustain, something that animal advocates dispute.

About 1,400 that are rounded up would be returned to the range after they receive contraceptive drugs. But the total rounded up would be more than double the 9,181 gathered last year.

The previous peak over the past decade was 9,749 in 2018. Fewer than 4,100 were gathered annually from 2013 through 2017.

Culver noted the land agency announced last week it was taking additional steps to ensure that captured horses made available for public adoption do not end up in the hands of secondhand buyers who ship them to slaughterhouses.

That move drew mixed reactions from horse advocates, who welcomed efforts to tighten regulations but said the reforms don't go far enough and that horses will still end up being slaughtered as long as the government offers $1,000 cash incentives to adopt the animals.

Neda DeMayo, president of Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation, said the crisis on the range is the result of the Bureau of Land Management's "failure to implement solutions that have been available for over 20 years," including accelerated use of fertility control programs.

U.S. Representative Dina Titus, a Nevada Democrat, agreed.

"This situation further illustrates that the status quo does not work," Titus said. "That is why I led an effort to provide funding in this year's Interior appropriations bill for safe and humane birth control."