Saving Wild Horses

More than forty years ago, President Nixon signed into law the Wild Horse Protection Act of 1971. That law was to assure wild horses on federal lands would be able to live free, and run wherever that may be. The law also directed wild horses were a protected species, that they could not be captured, subjected to inhumane treatment, or killed – whether it be on federal, state, or private lands. Of course, that didn’t sit well with ranching interests here in the west. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was given the authority to oversee the management of the wild horse population, and enforcement of the law. However, since given that responsibility, the BLM has done the exact opposite.

photo courtesy of James Marvin Phelps


While the amount of open range for wild horses was gradually reduced through the years, cattle ranching interests heavily lobbied for greater access to BLM lands. The wild horse population was largely ignored. Captures were few. When larger numbers of cattle began to graze on the open range, wild horse captures exploded during the Bush 43 administration. Thousands were captured and removed from the open range, and placed into holding pens. The BLM had argued the wild horse population needed better management and their population reduced due to scarce resources across the high desert plains of Nevada, Utah, northwestern Colorado, and portions of Wyoming. Continuing their argument, the BLM cited ongoing drought conditions across the high desert plains. (By definition, high desert plains do not receive much moisture.)

photo courtesy of James Marvin Phelps


photo courtesy of James Marvin Phelps


Faced with mounting costs to maintain wild horses in their holding pens, the BLM convened a meeting among the members of their wild horse advisory board in 2008. Complicating the situation was that the BLM did not know how many wild horses they were holding. Estimates ranged between 30-35,000 horses captured and removed from the range. The BLM knew wild horse adoptions was a poor solution. And, the BLM knew selling wild horses to brokers “without limitation”, would lead to the loss of public support. With no solution at hand, Madeleine Pickens, wife of billionaire T. Boone Pickens, made the offer she would take all of the wild horses and relocate them to private lands at her expense. The horses would be allowed to live and run free as originally intended by law. Despite the generosity, the BLM turned down the offer.

When the Obama administration assumed office, the wild horse captures continued. The captures and removal, however, increased substantially. In five years, the number of wild horses in BLM pens nearly doubled. It is estimated the number of wild horses in captivity range between 50-60,000 – which is roughly more than half of the total wild horse population. Moreover, the round-ups since 2009 have become more aggressive in manner. The wild horses are run at a faster pace. Weaker wild horses and foals, unable to stay with their pack, fall behind. They are roped by trailing wranglers, with some being dragged to their deaths. The BLM says while the loss of wild horses are unfortunate, those losses are within acceptable limits. Though the round-ups are open to public observation, the BLM have moved the observation positions farther and farther away from the collection pens. Also, the BLM has begun to observe the observers more closely.

Naturally, it is assumed the BLM would provide the necessary resources to care for the wild horses in their holding pens. The BLM has estimated it costs $90-100 million to feed, water, and provide basic veterinary care for the 50-60,000 wild horses under their direct control. But, they only receive $75 million in funding. While the Obama administration says this budget item is underfunded, they have always requested a lesser amount. The current funding level continues at the FY 2008 level, the last time a complete federal budget was passed into law.

Three main questions need to be asked:

  • Why is the BLM depopulating wild horses from the open range?
  • Why does the BLM continue to remove wild horses when it does not have the resources to provide basic care for those under their control?
  • Why has the BLM sold, and continue to sell, wild horses to brokers, knowing those horses will be exported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter? (FYI: The exportation of horses for slaughter are a direct violation of federal law.)

The larger question, of course, is why should we care.

We should care. These wild horses can trace their lineage to the original Spanish stock introduced into North America. Some can trace their lineage to those horses ridden by the Great Plains Indians. They are a part of our history. They are some of our symbols of freedom. They are a part of the fabric of our nation.

photo courtesy of James Marvin Phelps


When in the company of horses, whether wild or domesticated, you see and witness how majestic they are. You see their personalities. You see the order in their lives. You see yourself.


Photo Credit

Many thanks to James Marvin Phelps Photography for his kind permission to use of the photos that appear in this post. It is much appreciated.


Research Credit

Many thanks to my daughter, Elizabeth, for kindly allowing the use of her high school thesis project on wild horses.

5 thoughts on “Saving Wild Horses

  1. A beautiful and very important post David. When exported they kill these horses ? Why ? That’s crazy and incomprehensible to me,
    such beautiful creatures… The photos from this photographer are amazing.

    • The horses are slaughtered for their meat, which is primarily sold in Europe – truly grotesque. If it can’t be sold for human consumption in Europe, it’s converted into chicken food for the European market.

      The photos are fantastic, excellent work.

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