Wild Horse Management Plan Would 'Guarantee Extinction,' Mustang Advocates Say

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently proposed a series of options that would drastically reduce the number of mustangs on public lands. Some horse lovers think the plan would be too effective and wipe out the animals completely.

The options include offering people $1,000 each to adopt a horse, reducing restrictions on adoptions—including allowing people to buy them for horsemeat—sterilizing them and killing them. The BLM said a combination of those options should reduce the American mustang population by 69 percent over six to 12 years.

Wild horses have been a matter of intense public debate for decades. Cattle ranchers believe that the horses, which are an invasive species, damage the landscape. The ranchers benefit from having the horses removed so they can put cattle, which are also invasive, on the land.

A wild horse foal in Oregon. The Bureau of Land Management proposed a series of options that would drastically reduce the number of mustangs on public lands. Jeremy Martin/BLM Oregon

"According to the law, the cattle are permitted," Bob Skinner, former president of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association and current vice president of the Public Land's Council, told Newsweek. "It was to be used for grazing to supply the country with meat and income. The horses just kind of snuck into the picture." Skinner also argued that horses are more destructive to the landscape than cattle.

But horse advocates say the horses have just as much of a right to be there, and renting the land at subsidized rates to what they call "welfare ranchers" primarily benefits the billionaires in the 0.01 percent. Still, as the BLM estimates that care and control for the horses costs taxpayers $50 million a year, horses find themselves rounded up, adopted out and sterilized.

Horse herd
A herd of wild horses runs during a roundup in Utah in February 2012. BLM Utah

In a press statement submitted to Newsweek, the BLM said: "As Congress notes, failure to address the rising costs of the programs and the toll large herds of horses and burros in the west 'will result in irreparable damage to the landscape and the welfare of the animals protected by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.' The BLM agrees."

Debbie Coffey from the Wild Horse Freedom Federation, who has filed 130 Freedom of Information Act requests with the BLM, said the bureau estimated that some herds had increased 750-1,250 percent—numbers that she found misleading. "That's biologically impossible, that's absurd," Coffey told Newsweek. "Stallions aren't having babies!" Only breeding-age female horses can have roughly one foal per year.

But the population, unchecked by the native predators that people have eradicated, has increased as their range has shrunk. The BLM estimated that there were 72,674 wild horses and burros on public land; Coffey contested that number. The BLM hopes that some combination of its plans to lift restrictions on adoption and/or sterilizing and/or killing animals could reduce their number to "appropriate management levels" of 26,715.

FebRoundup Wild Horses
A trained domestic horse leads mustangs into a trap in January 2013. Bureau of Land Management workers would give the mares a temporary fertility treatment and take yearlings away for adoption. BLM Nevada

A number of wild horse advocacy groups believe those approaches are misguided and have signed a document describing what they believe are better solutions. The Wild Horse Freedom Federation said a better plan would be to reduce the amount of rangeland given to ranchers so that horses can reclaim the range that they had in 1971: 53.8 million acres, as opposed to today's 26.9 million. The federation suggested that the BLM use offers from the public to help promote horse adoptions, and also reintroduce native predators.

Those groups claim that such a drastic reduction in horse populations wouldn't leave enough genetic diversity and viable, reproducing adults to continue having mustangs running free for future generations to enjoy. With such a reduction, they argue, mustang herds will become too small, forcing them to inbreed and become weaker—and die off.

Skinner disagreed, saying that if a method reduces horse populations too quickly, they can always discontinue and allow the horses to repopulate.

"All you have to do is just stop," he said. "You don't have to keep killing horses."