New to “Wild Horses?” (The Basics of the Fight, part one)

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Our wild horses are truly a treasure

New to wild horses? this article is for you. The ranks of people that become interested in America’s wild horses, and our western landscape, grows every year. It is not only American’s that are interested, it is people all around the globe. 

2020 will begin with critical battles that will determine the fate of wild horses on America’s public lands for years to come. The issues can seem complicated and overwhelming. Land management is filled with layers of laws, land use planning and a litany of acronyms. On top of all the “official speak” there sits decades of manipulation, fiction and politics. 

Many of the questions we are receiving in our inbox are answered in this fast overview. 

Part one, Basics. (Part two contains an action item. But if you have time, read part one first. Part two HERE)


Map showing  legal territory for wild horses and burros in the US. You can see the areas are concentrated and do not represent the vast majority of western public lands. More wild horses exist in the state of NV than in all others, combined. Inside these areas wild horses are given less than 16% of the available forage, the rest going to privately owned livestock. Not one acre of this territory is protected from extractive industry and preserved for wild horses.

Legal Intention of the term “Wild Horses”

Free Roaming horses and burros in the United States exist in multiple jurisdictions. A jurisdiction defines the legally responsible entity for specific subject matter. Each jurisdiction is governed by different laws and intentions. Understanding the jurisdiction of the subject you are addressing is the first step to answering any question or changing and rule or regulation.

The legal term “wild horse or burro” was established by the 1971 Wild and Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act. The Act established federal jurisdiction with an intention of creating protection from a practice called “mustanging” that was rampant in the West. Anyone could capture a horse or burro, by any means they chose, sell it to slaughter. In addition poisons were being placed at water sources to kill off horses to clear the way for domestic livestock (cows and sheep). The law was clear that these practices were considered abhorrent and “humane management” and “preservation” were desperately needed. The law passed without a single dissenting vote.

In legal terms the words “wild horse or burro” apply to free-roaming horses and burros on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service (USFS) lands. There are other jurisdictions that oversee free-roaming horses in the US: other federal jurisdictions, states and tribes. As an example: tribal horses (Navajo, Nakota, Pauite, etc) are private property of each tribe and not defined as “wild horses” within the legal jurisdiction. The BLM (currently) manages more horses and burros than all other jurisdictions combined.

The law declared them “fast disappearing from the landscape.” Sections of public lands that contained wild horses or burros were to be designated “ranges” set aside for “principle, but not exclusive” places wild horses and burros would be “preserved for future generations.” At the time it was claimed we had about 28,000 horses and burros left roaming the west.


Map showing hard rock mining claims from 2010. Over the last three years these “red dots” have increased. (On our sister site, PublicHorses.com, you can see how livestock and mining overlap territory that was intended to be utilized to preserve wild horse and burro herds)

Complicated Politics Simplified

The intention to set aside areas where wild horses could thrive on public lands “for future generations” met with intense opposition in practice. In the 1970’s our country began to create laws and regulations that began to curtail industry from destroying our air, water and wild places. Protecting wild horses and burros was one of dozens of new laws passed.

Both big industry and rogue profiteers resented regulations. Big industry formed political PACS and paid big money for lobbyists. In most western states both those that held political office and worked in federal agencies were “family and friends.” Many intentions of law were undercut through politics before they translated into practice. Those that translated into mandates for management were either manipulated or never enforced.

Most people are not aware of a “claiming period” that essentially allowed mustanging to continue through 1975. Over 17,000 wild horses were claimed in the state of Nevada alone as “private property.” Some permittees even hired “mustangers” to shoot wild horses so BLM would not draw boundaries and claim federal jurisdiction over wild horses allowed them to place any other restrictions on grazing livestock. Any interference, restriction, created resentment that in recent years the public associates with events like the ones that transpired in Bunkerville and Mahluer (those resentments are rooted in any restriction, including taking away the legal right to make fast cash through mustanging).

The most well-known political maneuver is when Conrad Burns (R-WY), representing those that resented not being able to engage in “mustanging” anymore and after a few BLM employees got caught taking wild horses to slaughter, snuck through an attachment to a spending bill to allow sales to slaughter of wild horses. This started the atrocity called “sale authority”  in 2004 and began the transfer of title now associated with adoption/sale. Prior to that amendment a wild horse maintained “wild” status under law and selling to slaughter was forbidden. A bill was immediately introduced, with overwhelming support, to invalidate the “Burns Amendment.” Unfortunately, the bill had to go into a committee chaired by Burns. There, at the request of his campaign contributors, the bill died. That bill is where “sale authority” comes from. The Act was intended to stop slaughter. (It should be noted that Burns lost the next election and his seat in the Senate.)

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As wild horse habitat is overrun by livestock and mining a new industry of “capture and hold” was born. Not one acre inside their legal territory is set aside as protected for wild horse use. Stocking levels are maintained at the same number nationally as that found “fast disappearing” in 1971. BLM has had fertility control available for 30 years. Instead the burgeoning costs of holding fuel a push, predominately by those that profited from mustanging, to resume open sales of mustangs to slaughter, essentially negating one of the original purposes of the restrictions imposed by the 1971 law.

Fast Forward

For wild horses several intentional/unintentional things occurred that interfered with the original intention of the law:

  • Boundaries of the areas “set aside for legal use by wild horses” were drawn based on local politics and simply “ease of access.”
  • Stocking levels were set at the number “fast disappearing” at the national level and token numbers on the range. (Today the national Appropriate Management Level, AML, is the same number set in politics in the 70’s.)
  • There were no restrictions on industry to protect wild horse habitat. Instead wild horses were minimized and managed as an inconvenience to industry.

Those three points have never been addresses and everything that came after it was severely flawed. Simply pointed out those errors can cause intense reactions including personal attacks. From 1982-2013 the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has said essentially the same thing about the BLM wild horse and burro program: assertion, and not science, are the root causes of mounting failures. The NAS recognizes AML, boundary lines and practices are inaccurate.

One example of the “game of numbers” created to serve industry are the politically set stocking levels. Inventory methods changing in the middle of the last decade that are much more accurate than methods in the 70’s. By some estimations the methods are more than 70% accurate. This increases the numbers on a spreadsheet. Those numbers are compared to the spreadsheets of inventories done prior to the changes, when this “national AML” was set. This creates another assertion, not based in science, that that our populations have exploded. No, the method of counting changed and population estimates in the 70’s could represent the exact same number on range today. It should be noted that the fictional AML of the 70’s has never been actualized in practice. One of the reasons is that it is artificially low, driving populations into a threatened state, increasing reproductive rates (This is not an opinion. This fact has been validated by the NAS).

“Fix” Sales Pitch

You can not “fix” something unless you can identify where it is broken and directly address rectifying the flaws. However, the flaws in the wild horse program represent a long list of items that benefit industry and make the program vulnerable to corruption (large industrial agenda and petty personal grievance).

There is also an element of violent retribution, In a recent report by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) that cited over 350 report threats and assaults, including attempted murder, against federal land management personnel. The report did not track threats to civilians and dangers to the general public.

Government contracts can represent a lot of money. One large roundup can bring in over a million dollars to a contractor. The cost of warehousing one wild horse for a lifetime is estimated at $50,000, multiple that by 500-1000 and over a 10 year period of time, representing a nice holding facility contract. Today salesman push everything from experimental surgeries to “new” systems of holding that all claim a to “fix” the program. Many of these presented to create a new contract system of subsides. None of the proposals “fix” the program. they just hide the problems and run a broken system to collapse. The players behind todays political debacle, here.

A lot of these new subsidies are in the fine print behind the additional $21 million just Appropriated to the program by Congress, increasing the cost of the program and fixing nothing. Those behind these plans (both the House version and the Senate version) represent industry; both livestock and those in massive multi-species/former federal contractors all looking to sell a product to their benefit. The livestock industry has also protected itself from any policy or oversight that could actually fix the on-range program.

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A Real Fix

A real “fix” to the program can only be actualized by addressing the flaws head-on. This must be the first goal of any additional funding prior to piling on a new layer, that will cause more damage, that can never be undone.

There are multiple tools that already exist to assist in the repair work. With no changes to the law, no influx of millions in new subsidies, no new drug, surgery, massive roundup. It starts with fixing the framework: replacing the assertions with actual data and creating an equation that includes identification of critical habitat and setting a population number that represents a recovery, not the number found “fast disappearing” or a number that leaves a population in a state of slowly losing genetic material.


However, taking a page from Conrad Burns playbook, we can do exactly the same thing he did in 2003.

Through Appropriations BLM has been allotted $21 million in additional funding to begin the agenda. There is one condition: BLM must release a report and plan for the use of that funding. Congress is requiring a 60 day review period for the report prior to releasing any additional funding. We will also be reviewing the report and providing Congress with that review. (Like we did to the report last year. Congress rejected the report and ordered BLM to prepare a new one.)

Congress can place limitations and order continued oversight. These limitations can include more than quarterly reports. If the BLM report is based on assertion, as was the last one, Congress could refuse to release the additional funding. (a pre-release guide to the next BLM Report to Congress, now over 6 months late, here)

The fight is not over.

In Part Two: The Mechanics and an Action item HERE.

We hope this article answers some of your questions.


Help us stay in the fight.




Categories: Lead, Wild Horse Education