Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories exploring the challenges of managing wild horses in the West and the cost of doing nothing.

SALT LAKE CITY — The horse helped man settle the West, but now it is killing the West.

That’s what wildlife experts and rangeland ecologists say.

Nearly 90,000 wild horses and burros roam in 10 Western states where government range watchers say there should be just under 27,000, and the horses are multiplying quickly.

On average, horse populations grow 15% to 20% every year in the wild, and left unchecked, the population across rangelands will double every four to five years, experts predict. The estimate of horses on the range does not include this year’s foal crop, which is likely between 14,000 and 18,000 animals.

“Wild horses are the most wicked natural resource problem facing the West.”

That’s according to Terry Messmer, a wildlife range specialist at Utah State University and director of the Jack H. Berryman Institute for Human Wildlife Conflict Management.

“But this is not the Bureau of Land Management’s problem,” he said. “This is society’s problem.”

The Deseret News spent eight months interviewing wildlife experts, rangeland ecologists, ranchers, cowboys, rural politicians, scientists and reviewing records with the Bureau of Land Management, which has oversight of the range, and lawsuits to understand this costly problem and what can be done about it.

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In an urgent media briefing Wednesday, the BLM’s deputy director for policy and programs, William Perry Pendley, told reporters it will cost $5 billion and take 15 years to get herds to the appropriate population levels. But he says the damage has already been done in some landscapes from a problem that didn’t start overnight.

“We have some rangelands in the American West that are so degraded today they will never recover,” he said. “What I am being told is there is no amount of money, there is no amount of time, there is no amount of good science that we can throw at this issue that will return these lands to a healthy status. That is a terrible place to find ourselves. We simply cannot allow it to continue.”

It’s a problem that speaks to the very heart of the American West and its vast public lands. And it’s part of the reason it’s difficult to find a solution: Not all agree on the problem to be solved.

“Everyone is convinced there is a crushing problem, but it is completely overblown,” said Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign. “Does that mean the horses don’t have to be managed? No. But they live in artificial boundaries on lands where predators have been removed for the livestock.”

There are 50,000 horses kept in off-range corrals or pastures, with many that have no chance at being adopted into private care because of age or other factors. Slaughter of horses in the United States is not an option since the federal government removed funding for federal inspectors. The last slaughterhouse for horses closed in 2007.

Gus Warr, the team lead for the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Program in Utah, talks with visitors during a tour of the Axtell contract off-range corrals in Axtell, Sanpete County, on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. The Axtell facility is one of two locations in Utah that provides care to wild horses removed from the range. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

The corralling of wild horses by the BLM costs you, the U.S. taxpayer, $81 million a year to manage, and that number will easily grow to more than $1 billion a year in just a short time frame as more horses and burros come off the range. Over their lifetime, those horses and burros in holding cost $47,000 per animal to house, assuming they enter a BLM facility at an early age and stay there for the duration of their life.

The BLM also operates under harsh scrutiny amid a litany of lawsuits because the federal agency does roundups, or doesn’t do roundups, because it administers birth control, or because it doesn’t administer enough birth control.

It is prohibited by law from euthanizing healthy horses or offering them for “unrestricted sale,” because they may end up in slaughterhouses in Canada or Mexico. Yet it is not illegal to ship unwanted domestic horses to Canada or Mexico for slaughter.

And there are critics who believe the BLM does its helicopter-driven roundups just to slip them over the border.

Lisa Reid, Utah’s BLM wild horse and burro public affairs specialist, rolled her eyes at that accusation.

“If we are doing that, why are there so many in holding? Please.”

The irony?

Distributors in the United States spent nearly $2.1 million in 2017 importing horse meat from Canada to feed big carnivores in several U.S. zoos, including Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, according to the Observatory for Economic Complexity, which tracks global imports and exports.

“They actually prefer horse over beef because it is closer to what they would eat in the wild,” said Erica Hansen, the zoo’s community relations manager.

Could wild horses feed the world’s hungry ... or Siberian tigers and Amur leopards?

Most everyone agrees that something needs to be done to fix this challenge of wild horses and burros on the range, but few can agree on a solution. How did we get here to such a dynamic problem of such monstrous proportions?

Wild horses stand in the Axtell contract off-range corrals in Axtell, Sanpete County, on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. The Axtell facility is one of two locations in Utah that provides care to wild horses removed from the range. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Man and horse

“There’s something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man,” Sir Winston Churchill, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, wrote. The horse has been man’s companion for thousands of years. And it is an American icon.

“Without the horse we would have not realized Manifest Destiny,” said Messmer, describing the coined phrase that defines 19th century North American expansion.

“The idea that you have this animal that is so much more powerful than a human being and somehow that relationship evolves and it is trust. It was the taming of the West. We’ve had that dependency on horses for so long, it has carried forward to develop a deep, spiritual and religious bond. It pervades everything and even goes beyond cats and dogs and other animals.”

Horses and other livestock helped members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on their harrowing, death-filled journey from Nauvoo, Illinois, to settle in Utah to avoid persecution.

While crossing the plains in 1848, the deep faith of Mary Fielding Smith led two men to lay their hands on a sick ox named “Old Bully” and administer a blessing. It is a popular story in church history because it was one of the earliest examples of the Saints using the power of God to heal their animals.

So before the car, before the steam locomotive — dubbed the iron horse — the horse was used to round up cattle, work on the farm, carry people to town. If you were a horse thief, and caught, you were hung.

In World War I, the United States shipped more than 1 million horses and burros to France because of the shortage of animals there. More than 8 million horses, mules and donkeys died in the war effort, according to the Animals in War Memorial Fund.

Wild horses stand in the Axtell contract off-range corrals in Axtell, Sanpete County, on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. The Axtell facility is one of two locations in Utah that provides care to wild horses removed from the range. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Wild horses and the law

During the 20th century in the United States, the rangeland population of horses shrunk from 20 million to 3 million, with the majority sent to slaughter. The Wild West, which was settled in part due in large measure to the horse, hosted shooting parties.

By 1971, a well-orchestrated campaign coupled with public outcry led to the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act to provide for the management and protection of wild horses and burros on the land they occupied.

“Horses have been part of the American culture since the first Europeans showed up on the American continent,” said Cliff Williamson, director of health and regulatory affairs with the American Horse Council. “We have a culture in the United States that includes horses, but because of increasing urbanization, trying to figure out how to incorporate horses sometimes becomes awkward.”

Williamson pointed to the increasing pressure on domestic horse carriage operations in cities across the country. Salt Lake City, for example, outlawed them in 2014 after a horse collapsed downtown and died days later from colic. There was even a vigil for 13-year-old Jerry.

Similar pressure is growing on police departments that use horses, Williamson said.

“Mounted police divisions are an important part of crowd control in cities that have them, and they are effective because it is safer for everyone involved,” he said. “People have this connection to horses. They might throw a brick at a person, but they are not going to throw a brick at a horse.”

The prospect of euthanizing excess healthy horses loomed as an option for the BLM for many years until 2005, when the agency internally implemented controls to prevent the slaughter of sold horses. A year later, the Horse Slaughter Prevention Act eliminated federal funding for government inspections of U.S. horse slaughterhouses and the last U.S. facility closed in 2007.

A maelstrom of controversy now envelopes the BLM as well as the Forest Service and Native American reservations over the population of wild horses and burros, with intense pressure from every facet: ranchers, farmers, wildlife organizations, rangeland ecologists, scientists, Congress, rural politicians, special interest groups, academia, the Department of Defense, the American Horse Council, corporations and the public.

At the center of the debate is the BLM’s population target for wild horses and burros, which is in hot dispute.

Wild horse organizations and the National Academy of Sciences says the “appropriate management level” of just under 27,000 horses is arbitrary with no basis in science.

Many groups are opposed to the BLM roundups in which the agency uses contractors to drive the horses into a trap via helicopter. The collection or “gather” of the horses, like a September effort on the Onaqui herd in Utah’s Tooele County, reduces their population based on rangeland conditions and other factors.

Lynette Larson watched a helicopter chase Onaqui horses into the trap.

She shook her head, an angry scowl washing over her face.

“Can you imagine how terrified they are? Those poor animals. There is no empathy in this administration.”

Gathers are controversial. Some horses are killed. At the Range Creek gather in Carbon County early October, a foal died after it was trampled by older horses.

Larson, at the Onaqui gather, broke down in tears.

“These are our horses. So I am emotional,” she said. “There’s no other spirit like a horse.”

Emotions have become the legal armageddon when it comes to the issue of wild horse management, Messmer said.

“Nobody likes slaughtering horses,” Messmer said. “But why is it OK to slaughter 9 billion cows, sheep, pigs and poultry each year and euthanize 2 million cats and dogs?

“If you do the math based on the growth rate, we could have over a million of these horses by 2034 and that is just around the corner.”

Emerging strategies

Amid this contention, a May summit in Reno brought together representatives from 90 different organizations to determine whether there was support for a plan called the “Path Forward.”

The plan has buy-in from diverse groups such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, representing ranchers and farmers, the Humane Society of the United States and Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation.

It combines an accelerated schedule of wild horse roundups, aiming to remove 15,000 to 20,000 animals a year over the next three years, with stepped-up fertility control, more funding for additional off-range facilities and enhanced promotion of the BLM’s adoption program.

Earlier this year, the BLM began paying eligible individuals a $500 incentive at the time of adoption, and another $500 a year later after the adopter takes title of the animal.

On Wednesday, Pendley announced the BLM experienced one of its best years ever for adoptions — 7,104 horses and burros placed into private homes — a 54% increase over last year.

Visitors look at an aerial photograph of the Axtell contract off-range corrals during a tour in Axtell, Sanpete County, on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. The Axtell facility is one of two locations in Utah that provides care to wild horses removed from the range. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Last month, the agency closed a bidding process involving adding more off-range corrals in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. At a public tour of the Axtell wild horse and burro facility in September in Sanpete County, several potential Utah contractors were asking a lot of questions and eyeballing the Utah operation run by Kerry Despain, and his wife, Nanette.

Gus Warr, the team lead for the Utah BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro program, said the incentive program has been particularly popular for burros, with the numbers at Axtell the lowest he’s seen in years.

In late September, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed a 2020 spending bill that includes $35 million to jumpstart the Path Forward.

The USU’s Messmer says the money isn’t close to being enough to carry out the full plan, but it is a start.

Out of that Reno summit grew the Free Roaming Equids and Ecosystem Sustainability Network, or FreesNet, which held its first organizational meeting in Utah in September, with three working groups focused on population management, rangeland conditions and habitat, communication and outreach.

On Oct. 28, FreesNet will host a workshop for congressional staffers in advance of the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board’s meeting in Washington, D.C. FreesNet is also planning a summit in Wyoming next year.

Gus Warr, the team lead for the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Program in Utah, talks with visitors during a tour of the Axtell contract off-range corrals in Axtell, Sanpete County, on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. The Axtell facility is one of two locations in Utah that provides care to wild horses removed from the range. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

As he has continued to study the issue and challenges of wild horse and burro populations, Messmer said his frustration magnifies because any solution has to engage everybody, including the youth of the United States, who may ultimately bear the financial price tag of a mismanaged problem.

“People will only tolerate a certain level of malfeasance. I’ve become angry, confused and disillusioned ... because the horse has risen to the level of deity on the range and is not considered livestock by many groups,” he said. “Everybody shares the blame. As concerned as the activists are, we are not thinking about the long-term welfare of the animals. The consequences in the future may be more untenable and more distasteful than doing something progressive now.“

Wild horses are “culled,” or gunned down by helicopter in Australia because of excess numbers. Few see that as a likely path for the United States, but the pressure is on to do something, and do something soon.

But multiple wild horse organizations and other groups are livid over the the Path Forward and the call for more roundups. They say organizations like Return to Freedom and the Humane Society of the United States “sold out” under pressure from the ranching industry.

Opponents say the roundups will lead to mass extinction of the animals, and the BLM is not adequately stepping up its fertility control program in a humane way or exploring other options to properly address wild horse and burro populations.

“The hoofprint of cattle and sheep on BLM lands in the West is so much greater than the horses but there is this hyper focus on the horses,” Roy said, pointing out that wild horse and burro populations only occupy 17% of BLM lands that also includes grazing for sheep and cattle.

To look at it from another perspective, Roy said 83% of BLM land grazed by livestock lack wild horses or burros, so conflicts between ranching and wild horses occur on less than 20% of the land.

But the BLM says an acre-to-acre comparison is an oversimplification of the issue.

“Like wild horse management, the BLM manages livestock to achieve land health standards. Livestock typically only graze the range for a permitted number of months, while wild horses and burros must have resources available to last them all year long,” said Jason Lutterman, the public affairs specialist with the agency’s National Wild Horse and Burro Program, On-Range Branch. “The BLM is also prohibited by law to relocate wild horses to places on public lands where they were not found in 1971.“

To complicate management, the animals will stray from boundaries in the hunt for forage and water.

In September’s roundup of the Onaqui wild horses in Tooele County’s west desert, the BLM removed 46 animals from Dugway Proving Ground at the request of the military. Other horses were removed from the fringes of the herd management boundaries.

Cathy Ceci, with Wild Horse Education, drove out to watch the BLM round up the Onaqui herd members.

“Sometimes gathers need to be done, but they are the symptom of mismanagement. You need to start before you get to this point. There are some herd management areas that are crowded and some that are not. But when you get to this stage, they’re gone,” she said, noting the irony of the federal boundaries.

“These horses are only regulated by the land they stand on. They can be protected on one piece of property and cross over to another and be on a reservation.”

Roy contends the BLM’s targeted population goals are numbers that are absurdly low and set in land use management plans, many of which have not been updated in years.

In New Mexico, she said, the statewide population target is 83 animals for herd management areas that encompass 29,000 acres. The boundaries, she added, are artificial and population problems persist in part because natural predators such as mountain lions and coyotes have been decimated at the request of ranchers.

Larson said wildlife managers should let the predators return, and allow nature to play out.

“Let predators back to keep the herds down,” she said. Officials were tracking a mountain lion in California, she added, and it was taking a foal a week. “You know that’s natural.”

The same critics also claim the assertion that the wild horse and burro populations are jeopardizing wildlife, such as the imperiled greater sage grouse or other species, is overblown and propaganda.

The Wildlife Society, representing more than 10,000 wildlife biologists, disagrees. Two years ago, it urged immediate action for an acceleration of roundups because of the “dire” ecological problem of too many horses and burros on public lands. And it predicted if no action is taken, the non-management strategy will lead to one consequence: death of the horses and burros by starvation or dehydration.

With so many unadopted horses in holding, Roy said the roundups will only exacerbate the problem and cost millions more for taxpayers.

“We are never going to adopt our way out of this situation. We don’t oppose adoption, but the market is not there to absorb the numbers they are bringing on.”

East vs. West

Many political leaders in the West say the wild horse management issue has been hijacked by East Coast counterparts who are entrenched in the allure of a symbol in which they have little knowledge about the problems it presents.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah | Scott G Winterton

“It is clear the issue of the wild horse has been romanticized by people, who especially in the East, have this ideal vision of what wild horses should be that doesn’t fit the reality of what we see in the West,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources.

“It is frustrating to have these people with a vision that is not the reality that is faced by those who live in the West and understand what the land can and cannot produce.”

There are differences in attitude over wild horses or wild ponies that is as stark as the contrast between a wild black stallion and a gentled cream-colored filly.

Here’s a couple of comparisons.

At Chincoteague Island, off the coast of Virginia, there’s a 94-year-old tradition called Pony Penning that draws thousands of people.

They come to see some of the wild ponies from the neighboring Assateague Island herded into the channel to make a short swim to Chincoteague Island.

The ponies are owned and managed by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company that auctions off the foals. They go for good money.

This July at the auction, Alexandra Cooper cried, holding onto a feather she raised for her bid on a Chincoteague pony. She couldn’t believe that for just $3,400, she became the new owner of a chestnut pinto foal.

“I wanted this since I was 4,” she said, as she trembled with excitement at the tradition made famous by the 1947 children’s book “Misty of Chincoteague” and written by Marguerite Henry.

Cooper, 16, saved a few hundred dollars for her dream pony. With the help of the nonprofit Feather Fund, she brought Riptide’s After the Storm to her home in Sarasota, Florida, this month. Tide, as he is nicknamed, was just a few months old at auction and handled by humans very little at all.

In June at the Davis County Legacy Center in Farmington, Utah, a yearling bay from the Sulphur wild horse herd in Utah bolted into a horse trailer.

Jill Swift asked the BLM handlers to please put a halter on the filly, just so they would have a whisper of a chance to catch her once at home in Weber County.

After a hundred days of gentling through a youth mustang challenge, Swift’s 17-year-old daughter, Jaylee Rasmussen, brought Montana home for good. The price — just $25. No other adopters made a bid.

On a recent fall afternoon in Utah’s western Weber County, the once untamed mustang has a 6-week-old puppy sitting on its rump, looking to Jaylee for treats and a nuzzle.

“She became a horse,” Swift said, smiling at Montana, who for a moment looked like she was about to doze off.

“She’s just very lovey. I think there is this stigma with the mustang, that people think they are range rats. But you can have domestics that are just as bad or worse. She trusts people because she has never been hurt.”

On the first day Montana was at her new home, Jaylee was exhausted from a late night at her catering job. She pulled a chair into the corral and sat down, falling asleep for about two hours. She awakened to Montana’s nuzzle right next to her face.

“She’s like a dog now. She follows me around everywhere I go.”

Cooper continues to be enthralled with her Chincoteague pony and the promise that it will be her new best friend. It will take some work, work that Montana already went through.

That East Coast experience of Chincoteague is not something that happens here in the West.

At the Reno summit this spring, Messmer continued to preach the need for dynamic collaboration, regardless of the divergent opinions. Messmer says he sees himself as a wild horse advocate, but not an activist.

“My bias is that I am a scientist. The wild horse is the only species of animal that is managed by emotion not science, but everybody has to have a voice in this thing,” he said.

“At the summit I made the argument that the enemy is not sitting next to you. The enemy is time and time has left the train station. It is barreling down the track.”