Horses. There is a fascination with them that captivates us, more so than with many other animals. When you add in the wild horse factor, then there is even more of an air of mystique. Sometimes it is unfathomable to even imagine that masses of these wild horses still exist in the Western United States, given the widespread population and industrial expansion of today. But they do.
Wild horses are descendants of the horses brought by the Spanish conquistadors of the 16th century. They are generally referred to as mustangs, stemming from the Spanish word mustengo meaning “ownerless beast.” Because they are descendants of escaped domestic horses, wildlife management considers them feral (meaning escaped and becoming wild) instead of wild. However, wild horses are still wild in the sense that they live on their own in the wild and are untamed.
They can be found in California, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, South Dakota, Arizona and Texas although Nevada lays claim to home for more than half of them. The fact that they still run free after so many years is a hopeful sign in this complicated world of rules and constrictions. However, freedom never comes without a price as is indicated by the fact that it is estimated that there are more than 70,000 living on Western rangelands that can only support 27,000.
This overpopulation is partially due to how they live and that they have no natural predators. They scavenge the more than 34 million acres of public land that they run on, eating grass and brush. On a typical day, each mustang will eat 5 to 6 pounds of food when it is available. They run in large herds, which usually consist of one stallion, eight females and the young. The herd is led by one mare and a stallion that is over 6 years old. When faced with danger, the mare leads the herd to safety while the stallion stays and fights. They can double the size of the herd every four years without intervention and have a lifespan of about 40 years.
Overpopulation is a huge concern. The Bureau of Land Management has the undaunting job of managing the United States mustang population and the bureau has a mandate to keep the number at 23,622. This is easier said than done since there are different views on this problem. With the numbers growing, the rangeland could be stripped bare if the problem isn’t kept in check. On the other hand, the Humane Society estimates that 100 years ago the wild horse population was at two million and now there are fewer than 25,000. The numbers clearly don’t match and neither do the solutions.
Mustang populations that are out of control can’t be handled like wild pigs or deer when their numbers increase too much. Special hunts are allowed and the pork and venison are consumed whereas eating horse meat is taboo in the United States, unlike France, Sweden and Japan where it is part of their diet.
The United States Department of Agriculture has no inspectors to deal with horses to cull the population. Government officials would have to sign off on shipping thousands to slaughter houses in Mexico. There is a movement to re-open a small number of strictly regulated processing plants in the United States, however this is a very tricky and heated solution.
The mustangs can be adopted but this takes money and land. The government has the option to round them up and send them to private ranches. However, according to the Washington Post, this cost the government 74.9 million in 2012 and by 2030 the same study estimates that the government will have spent 1.1 billion dollars on food and shelter. About 450,000 mustangs are kept at these “retirement” ranches and the rounding up, vaccinating and tracking programs are a daunting task.
UNBRANDED was a documentary that brought attention to the problem of mustang overpopulation. In 2013, inspired by Ben Masters, four young men adopted mustangs from the Bureau of Land Management, trained them and proceeded to ride 3,000 miles from Mexico to Canada in five months and six days. They rode on public lands in Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana and saw the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Glacier National Park like no one else has. They launched a campaign, gathered money and attracted an all-star film team to promote the adoption of wild horses with all proceeds going to the Mustang Heritage Foundation that assists in the adoption of these horses. All in all, they raised $100,000 and inspired hundreds of people to adopt these wild beasts of beauty.
UNBRANDED and Masters’ driving force behind the movement was a good start to raise awareness but it still did not come close to a solution. As of March 2016, 67,000 horses and burros were known to still roam on public lands and 45,000 were in government holding pens.
Ecologists, rangeland managers and ranchers agree that the mustang overpopulation has caused irreversible damage to the delicate desert ecosystem. What they don’t agree on is what to do about the problem. Wild horse advocates say that sheep and cattle numbers should be reduced to leave more forage area for the horses. Naturally, ranchers disagree since sheep and cattle are their bread and butter.
Wildlife conservationists advocate that bison, long horn mule deer, prong horns and other wildlife should take precedence over livestock and wild horses. Animal activists say all animals should be allowed to roam the public lands. The problem is that there is only so much land and, as Will Rogers said “Land, that ain’t making any more of the stuff.”
To put it all in perspective, in March of 2016, 15,500 wild horses and burros were living in feedlots and short term holding pens and another 31,500 were living in long term pastures. All of these were gathered off the range, were segregated by sex, castrated, branded, given shots and were doomed to sit in feedlots for about five years. They have been or will be released into foreign pastures to them, bearing no resemblance to their former wild lifestyle. Is this any way for these spirited animals to live?
Certainly, there is a problem. Between all the groups involved, no one can decide on what the best solution should be. What they do agree on is that doing nothing will result in harder decisions in the future. These are spirited mustangs, wild horses that are creating even wilder controversy.