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Opinion: The real problem with wild horses is not what you think

An overpopulation of wild horses is not the problem on the rangelands — and removing them isn’t protecting them

SHARE Opinion: The real problem with wild horses is not what you think

People attend the Wild Horse and Burro Freedom Rally at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 2, 2021. The rally aimed to raise public awareness of the plight of Utah’s Onaqui wild horses, which face a helicopter roundup beginning July 12.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Our nation’s wild horses and burros, viewed by most Americans as cherished living symbols of our nation’s frontier history and culture, are facing unprecedented persecution.

The Bureau of Land Management and its livestock industry allies continue to repeat unfounded claims about horses being overpopulated and in danger of starvation and rangelands being devastated by wild equine herds.

But the BLM doesn’t mention the cattle and sheep swarming over our rangelands by the millions, often outnumbering wild horses by dozens to one on designated wild horse and burro habitats, or that wild equines occupy just a tiny fraction of BLM lands. With this misleading narrative, the BLM conducts mass helicopter roundups under the pretext of “emergency” or “drought” conditions, which allows them to proceed without first conducting environmental assessments or taking public comment.

But I have seen the truth with my own eyes. During the summer of 2021, the BLM claimed the Onaqui horses of the West Desert were thin and in danger of starving, the range was badly overgrazed and unable to sustain the herd, and the agency had no choice but to conduct a helicopter roundup to remove most of the horses. I visited the herd just days before the operation, and I saw only fat, healthy horses on a sprawling expanse of abundant forage. Indeed, three days into the roundup, the BLM admitted publicly that the horses were in good condition, contradicting its own justification for removing them. Nevertheless, the agency pressed on with the operation, permanently depriving hundreds of Onaqui horses of their families and freedom. 

But the real motivation for the roundup became abundantly clear just weeks later, when the BLM allowed thousands of sheep onto the same range that it claimed couldn’t support a few hundred wild Onaqui horses. The same thing happened in Colorado after the roundup of another famous wild herd in the Sand Wash Basin. Despite massive public outcry, including by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, the BLM chased, trapped and removed hundreds of horses from their designated habitats, but then allowed thousands of sheep onto the same rangelands it claimed couldn’t sustain the horses.

And now we hear claims from some quarters, especially from pro-hunting groups, that wild horses threaten wild species like pronghorn and mule deer by chasing them away from water sources and competing for forage.

Earlier this year I traveled again to the Onaqui range to see wild horses. We could find only four horses, all stallions, standing among at least 50 pronghorns, who were bedded down peacefully around them. I’ve seen countless photos from wildlife photographers showing horses peacefully sharing waterholes and rangelands with pronghorn, coyotes, deer and other wildlife species. Not once have I heard them say they’ve seen horses harassing wildlife. And the claim that horses compete with mule deer for forage is nonsensical; deer are browsers, horses are grazers. Again, the purveyors of these claims seem less interested in being accurate than in engendering public animosity toward wild equines.

The New York Times has revealed that the BLM’s wild horse Adoption Incentive Program was landing horses and burros in the slaughter pipeline. A top advocacy group has documented that over a thousand wild equines adopted by the BLM to unscrupulous adopters have been offered for sale at kill pens and slaughter auctions.

The BLM’s response? To claim they’ve seen no evidence that it’s really happening. Meanwhile, I personally helped bail 17 BLM-titled mustangs and 14 BLM-titled burros out of a kill pen in Oklahoma and sent them to sanctuaries, and I see social media posts daily about BLM animals at risk of shipping to foreign meat plants.

Whether you are a wild horse advocate or a concerned taxpayer, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about claims that wild horses are a threat to our public lands.

Scott Beckstead grew up in Idaho with horses and livestock and received his undergraduate degree from Utah State University and his law degree from the University of Utah. He serves as director of campaigns for Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy, and teaches classes in animal law, wildlife law, and animal agriculture law at Willamette University College of Law.