WASHINGTON (Circa) — Wild horses have been called a living symbol of the pioneer spirit in the west. But the federal government says there are far too many protected wild horses roaming on public lands. And after years of criticism for mismanagement, the agency that oversees the herd has finally developed concrete plans to cut the horse population numbers in drastic fashion, with some plans employing a long protested method: slaughter. As a result, advocates are gearing up for a fight, trying to engage more Americans in their effort to keep the wild horse population at its current level.
"Most Americans don't even understand this belongs to them. These horses are yours," Wild Horse Education advocate Laura Leigh told Circa. "This land is yours. And what happens out here, you have a say."
The federal program that oversees the management of thousands of wild horses has heard plenty from advocates like Leigh since it began its task decades ago. The often-criticized Bureau of Land Management was designated as the agency to handle the Wild Horse and Burro Program when Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 was passed. Since then, critics have called out the BLM for a rapidly growing horse population, tens of millions of dollars in annual spending and a lack of concrete solutions to keep the horse population under control.
The problem they're managing is based out west, on land featured in movies and books. The BLM oversees thousands of miles of open space in spots that come with a kind of quiet that's hard to describe. It's the kind of place that Leigh says changes a person if they are out there long enough. She's been advocating for the wild horses since 2009.
"I came out here and found something of myself I had lost. I’m not who I was before I came," she told Circa during a tour of public lands this spring.
Leigh talked about the wild horses in Tonopah, Nevada, a quirky mining town halfway between Las Vegas and Reno. She shared her perspective on the program that was started back when Nixon was president.
In 1971, Congress signed the law to protect the wild horses of the west whose numbers had been dwindling. Fast forward almost 50 years and the BLM has the opposite problem. A 2018 BLM report to Congress says public lands have three times as many wild horses as they can handle.
But it's a hard concept to understand when people see the thousands of miles of open space.
Leigh explained the range and the wild horse program linked to it, are extremely complex, "You can look at this wide open space, but how much grows out here? What is it that’s growing? How degraded was that landscape from other issues?"
With the wild horse program, there are countless issues. Managing this massive herd isn't just about passing a law, setting aside government land and letting majestic creatures run free. As advocates like Leigh battle for animal rights and humane treatment, lawmakers and lobbyists see other points to argue, including overpopulation and deteriorating range conditions.
"I have tried hard to get the public to understand these issues. They’re complicated. You have to take the time to understand the process."
The clock is ticking on a program many believe is running wild. The BLM says herds are now doubling in size every four to five years. And efforts to control the population just aren’t working. By the end of next summer, the agency says there will be more than 100,000 horses on land it says can only support about 26,000.
The numbers cited by the government are a point of contention. In a 2013 report, scientists questioned the BLM's methods of counting and called for a more science-based approach that the agency says it has since adopted.
"The health of the herd, the health of the individual horses is really being impacted," said Utah Congressman Chris Stewart during an interview with Circa.
Stewart grew up on horseback, ranching and farming before setting world speed records in the air. But he can’t seem to gain any traction on the ground with the wild horse problem, even though for years, he’s been one of the loudest voices calling for a solution. In a legislative committee meeting in May of 2016, Stewart said, "It just seems like we can throw our hands up and say this is too hard, we can’t fix it. But that just seems unacceptable."
Stewart's refusal to let the situation continue to fester comes with good reason. The sheer cost of managing the horses is astounding. The wild horse program budget has more than doubled since 2008 according to multiple government reports. And a recent budget document shows the program cost taxpayers $80 million in 2017. A $70 million budget request was made in 2018.
"By the way, in five years it could be a billion dollars that we’re going to end up spending because these horses are ending up doubling their herd size almost every four or five years," Stewart told us. "It’s a huge concern. Look $70 million is a lot of money, even to the government. And it’s $70 million we could spend on horses, or we could spend on education or we could spend on healthcare. Those are the choices we have."
And while Congressman Stewart talks about choices when it comes to wild horse population control it doesn't appear the BLM doesn't have a lot of them. Things have been so bad, the Office of the Inspector General even called out the agency in 2016 for having "no strategic plan to manage wild horse and burro populations."
John Ruhs used to oversee the wild horse program in Nevada. Circa traveled there to speak with him in April, before he shifted roles within the government. He talked about how the BLM has been effectively handcuffed in the decades since the Wild Horse and Burro Act was passed.
"If you look at the act as it was originally passed and with the four amendments that came with it, we were given a suite of tools to manage. And Congress has effectively taken many of those tools off the table."
Ruhs was candid in the conversation, but he kept using one phrase heard over and over in this debate: suite of tools. When talking about wild horses, that's generally code for one thing: slaughter. Ruhs admits, as tough as the option is to discuss, it has to be considered.
"That hits you to the core. You don’t like that. Nobody does. Do you like putting your dog down? No. Do you like putting your cat down? No. But those are things that as humans, that’s our responsibility," he explained. "It’s not fitting for every situation. It’s not fitting for every condition. But through the total management, it’s one of the things we need to be able to do."
Congressman Stewart echoed the same sentiment, telling Circa, "It gets very political actually, and a bit emotional and that’s because those of us that do care about these animals, you hate the thought of euthanizing them or killing them."
Although Stewart made headlines for proposing humane euthanasia for horses last year, he broke the news to Circa that he’s backing off the plan, calling it “politically impossible”. But that’s not why the herds were spared from the chopping block this year or in the past. Language added to congressional spending bills has repeatedly saved these horses. That's because although the original act did allow the BLM to sell or euthanize older or unadoptable animals, congressional riders have basically taken all of that off the table. In 2017, it was legislation included in the budget bill by Senators Lisa Murkowksi and Tom Udall that kept protections in place.
"There’s no question that Congress is to blame", Stewart said. "Because it’s congressional directives that have made it so BLM has a very difficult time. In fact, an impossible task to manage these herds."
Circa is trying to understand why. But it's difficult because there are so many emotion, so much politics and positioning. It’s not like there are two sides to this issue. With wild horses, even the sides have sides. And things get really heated when people start talking about one of the BLM's most commonly used tools. It's a practice called round-ups or gathers.
In this practice, government contractors often use helicopters to force horses out of ranges they say have too many. In some cases, horses are also baited and trapped. But it's the round-ups that fire up advocates more than any other BLM tactic. Although the agency has long considered round-ups a necessary management tool, many advocacy groups consider them barbaric. Gathers are the reason Laura Leigh says she dropped everything to take on wild horse advocacy full-time.
"What I was witnessing was absolute cruelty and it was taxpayer funded by an agency that would stand there and tell me, we care about horses."
The public has been allowed access to watch round-ups, and advocacy groups have routinely attended to capture video and photographs. The Office of the Inspector General examined the practice back in 2010, calling round-ups justified. The OIG's report also said it found no evidence of inhumane treatment by the BLM, which reports injuries and deaths associated with each gather.
Despite almost universal protest from the advocacy community, gathers and round-ups remain part of the process that's taken more than 130,000 horses off the range since 2000. In 2017, the BLM's website says 3,700 horses were removed. Some of them, according to the agency, were pulled from areas with little to no available food to forage, leaving the horses in danger of starvation.
After horses are removed off the range, they're taken to short-term holding facilities across the west. Circa visited the Palomino Valley Wild Horse Center outside Reno, Nevada, a facility that staff says could see as many as 3,000 horses come through on an average year. They said the horses could stay as little as 30 days or as long as 200 before they're sent out for potential adoptions or moved to long-term pastures.
The care that horses get off the range is not cheap. Budget records show it's the biggest expense for the BLM, with $48 million spent annually for off-range pastures and short-term corrals. And the tab is funded by taxpayers. Short-term corrals rack up huge costs for the agency, at approximately $50,000 per horse for their lifetime, according to a 2017 Government Accountability Office report. BLM's 2018 report to Congress showed there are about 46,000 horses currently in government care, generating a $1 billion tab for the BLM over their lifetime.
The BLM has relied heavily on adoption as an alternative to care in pastures and corrals. The agency makes wild horses available to public adopters for a small fee. We checked out an adoption event in New Jersey where horses muddied and road weary from trips across the country were set out in corrals for public consideration. The horses have not been trained in any way and are as wild as they day they were pulled off the range.
"We want horses adopted. We want horses placed in homes. We want people caring for them and using them and giving them a life."
Despite its efforts, the BLM's adoption push hasn't done much to bring down the number of animals in care. Last year, the BLM's website says 2,900 horses were adopted out. But critics largely consider the program to be an effort like bailing water on a sinking ship. At a budget hearing in 2017, Ryan Zinke, secretary of the Department of the Interior testified "We're not adopting that many. When the adoption program began it was fairly successful, but I think we went through that."
Circa repeatedly asked Secretary Zinke for interviews to answer questions about the wild horse program but the offer to meet on any day, at any time was met with silence by his office and press representative. Zinke has been critical of wild horse management and the program that's been accused of carrying on with "business as usual practices". At the same 2017 budget hearing, he said, "This is what happens when you kick the can down the road long enough and it becomes a crisis."
On the peaceful front of the Nevada range, thousands of miles from policymakers like Zinke, wild horse advocates feel the pressure. Circa toured the Fish Springs area in Gardnerville with Deb Walker, a volunteer with the Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates and employee of the advocacy group, American Wild Horse Campaign.
"We love their wild instinct. We love watching their wild dynamic," Walker told us during a ride-along. "And we don’t want that to be gone."
As of the start of the summer, only about 75 horses live in the Fish Springs area. That makes it easier, the advocates say, to track individual horses and dart them with birth control when permitted. Walker said her group has a dedicated group of volunteers that do their own darting, at their own expense.
"We come out on a regular basis. And we have several teams of darters that are well trained. And several spotters like myself that have all the records. We know who we are looking for, so to us, it’s not that difficult."
But it's not that easy on every range or management area. In some spots, we drove for hours without seeing a single horse. And when we did find them, our team couldn’t get within 100 yards before they bolted. The difficulty gaining access to the horses is problematic given that the birth control administered to these horses only lasts a year, so you have to return and do it all over again with every mare.
Secretary Zinke has called the fertility control program, by and large, a failure. The effort is also a major taxpayer expense, with each round of darting or injections typically costing about $3,000 per horse. Research projects focused on improving the fertility control effort are slated to cost the BLM as much as $10 million over the next five years.
"The rules of engagement with these horses, the number of times you have to hit them, identifying them, finding them out on the range and then putting them in a place where you can apply the inoculation, it’s very very difficult and we’ve demonstrated that because we’ve been unsuccessful in doing that," Congressman Stewart said.
So why does the BLM continue to pursue options for fertility control in some areas? John Ruhs explained, "It’s one of the tools that we have, that we can use and there are places where it makes an impact. It makes a difference in some places."
"There are really only a few that don’t endorse this type of program. But they make big enough noise that it’s a real thorn in our side," Walker said while talking about the volunteer darting effort. "But you know we just put our heads down and we plug ahead because we know we’re doing the right thing for the horses."
The BLM also has to balance what's right for the land. In the Fish Springs area, the agency had discussions about downsizing the herd. The BLM had planned to remove as many as 50 of the 78 horses that live there, but later suspended a planned gather operation. In published reports, the agency originally cited a lack of available grasses in the range as the reason for the round-up. For years, critics including Congressman Stewart, have blamed the loss of those grasses and overall range degradation on the wild horse population.
During a June 2017 budget hearing, Stewart did a presentation showcasing what he said he's witnessed on the range in his home state. He said, "This shows a 26 year history. This is what the range used to look like in my district, 26 years ago. Healthy grasses that could support wildlife, could support horses. This is what it looks like now. It’s just dirt, dirt and some sage grass. I’ve got page after page of examples of this because of the abundance, overabundance of wild horses."
"There’s a lot of things being said about the wild horses to set them up to be rounded up so that the land can then be grazed with private interest. If you stand to make money off public land, you build a case against the animals you want off the land. And it’s honestly as simple as that."
Advocates across the board say the case is being made to make more room for cattle. Grazing on public land costs cattle farmers a tiny fraction of what they’d pay on private farms. Advocates routinely make the point that cattle greatly outnumber horses on public lands, but the way animals are tracked by the BLM is convoluted so it's difficult to make an animal for animal comparison.
Ethan Lane with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association sees things differently. He told Circa, "One thing advocates miss in making this sort of argument that ranchers are part of the problem too, is this is these folks livelihood. A healthy range is absolutely critical to their success."
Lane raises the point that it's not actually about the number of cows or horses that graze the range. It's how they graze. He explained, "The fact is we’re talking about two dramatically different things. The cattle that are grazing on public lands are incredibly highly managed. This is typically a few months of the year. They’re rotated among pastures on a very regular basis, sometimes every couple of weeks or every month. These folks aren’t turning these livestock animals out and hoping for the best, come back and check them in a year. This is a daily thing."
Lane said grazing has been threatened with the growth of the horse population and less available food on the range. There has been conversation about holding back more permits for cattle grazing to let the land in some places regenerate.
"You tell a livestock operator to get his cows off the land, you could get an AK-47 in your face."
But ranchers and lawmakers like Congressman Stewart say it’s actually about threatening a way of life, with a tremendous cost to those who've made ranching a family tradition. Stewart said, "I’d love to see someone look them in the eye and say, 'I’m sorry this is for your family but we’re taking away your livelihood'. We can do both. There is a solution to this. You don’t have to kick ranchers off the range that they’ve been ranching since their great, great grandfather settled in the west. We can fix this problem."
Real, tangible solutions were proposed for the first time following a horse summit organized by Secretary Zinke. This spring, the BLM's report to Congress included four options for consideration. One calls for extensive round-ups and permanent sterilization. Another plan adds a $1,000 incentive for adoptions. The fastest plan to get horse populations down to what the BLM considers acceptable levels, would do so by 2026. That option requires euthanizing or selling horses without restriction. In July, the BLM scrapped a rule that puts small limits on how many horses people can buy, something advocates believe will allow the agency to sell horses by the truckload to slaughter.
Deb Walker was quick to dismiss the thought of using slaughter to bring down population numbers, telling Circa, "It’s brutal. It’s barbaric. That’s not what we do in America."
But on the other side, the cattle lobby has applauded the release of potential long-term solutions. Lane said, "I think this is the beginning of a conversation. DOI (Department of the Interior) deserves a lot of credit for going down this road. This has been a really difficult issue on both sides. They’re threading a delicate needle here and whether or not they can keep everybody at the table long enough to try and find some common ground remains to be seen."
Laura Leigh is among the advocates who aren't prepared to negotiate. She joins many others, clinging to the idea that some monuments to history should run wild. "It makes me want to stand here and go, not my horses."