Wild Horses

May 17 2019

Few images are more iconic than a wild mustang running freely through the open pastures of the mountain West. Unfortunately, the nasty reality of wild horse management doesn’t match that fantasy.

Congress formally recognized the need to protect wild mustangs with passage of the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. At the time, many Americans believed some of the methods used to cull horse herds were inhumane and needed to be regulated. The WFRHBA placed wild horses under federal management, making culling or even harassing horses illegal.

The Act also directed the Bureau of Land Management to “maintain a thriving ecological balance” between wild horses, other wildlife, vegetation, and livestock on federal lands. While ranchers, environmentalists, and the federal government didn’t always see eye to eye on the best management practices, the wild horse population maintained a relatively healthy and sustainable level for decades after the law was enacted because of the balancing act.

Then about 20 years ago, a political rider was attached to an annual appropriations bill that significantly limiteding the management tools BLM could legally use to control wild horse populations. Since wild horses have no natural predator, the resulting population boom has been dramatic. While scientists at the BLM estimate that the optimal number of wild horses to maintain ecological balance on federal lands is around 27,000 the BLM currently estimates there are now almost 88,000.

As a result of this population boom, vegetation on Western ranges has been decimated, local elk and deer populations can’t find feed, ranchers are being bankrupted by the costs hay to replace the lost forage their livestock, and the number of starving and diseased wild horses is rising substantially. There is nothing humane about forcing hundreds of wild horses to die of starvation and thirst.

We have all been working in our respective roles and Congressional chambers to bring this crisis to the attention of our colleagues in Washington, D.C.

On the House side, Rep. Chris Stewart, who sits on the appropriations committee, has been working for five years to prioritize funding for the BLM’s wild horse and burro program. Because the bulk of the herd management areas in Utah are in Rep. Stewart’s district, he has become the “wild horse guy” in the House of Representatives. Most recently, he has been working with a broad coalition of interest groups to identify non-lethal tools to manage wild horse herds. This is a historic moment; —never before have these groups come together. It would be shameful to let this moment pass without changing the failing policies.

On the Senate side, Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney sent a letter last week to the Senate Appropriations Committee highlighting the grave threat these unregulated herds pose to themselves, the surrounding wildlife, and local communities. The letter notes that unless the BLM is given the tools necessary to manage these herds, the problem will only get worse, to the detriment of the environment, the local economy, and the American taxpayer.

We appreciate all the work being done on the ground by stakeholders in Southern Utah to bring this important issue to the attention of those on the coasts.

Maintaining the balance between animals, plants, and local communities has always been a contentious issue on federal lands. When it comes to wild horses and burros, we are currently so far out of balance that it will take drastic changes to restore our ranges. But we believe that through effective collaboration, we can restore and then maintain appropriate management methods for the health of both the animals and the rangeland.

This joint oped with Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) originally appeared in the St. George News.