The Future Of Wild Horses Is Up For Debate In The Western US

May 15, 2019

Wild horses at a water guzzler in Nevada.
Credit BLM Nevada

Wild horses are an iconic symbol of America's West but ecologists say they are damaging our ecosystems and reproducing at an alarming rate. According to Dr. Terry Messmer, a professor of wildland resources at Utah State University, the United States has a horse problem. 

“The appropriate management level was set at about 26,000 on these 30 million acres," he said. "Right now you’ve got 88,000 estimated as of March 1. That’s three times the ecological balance.”

Wild horses are not native to North America - they are actually feral, the descendants of escaped and released domestic horses since the first European settlement of the continent. There are nearly 2,000 wild horses and burros in Utah, where they are protected by the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

“The primary way of managing free-roaming equids on public land has been to remove them," Messmer said. "So the BLM in the early part of the Act could then sell them, in some cases they were euthanized - they were slaughtered.  You can no longer euthanize horses."

Multiple organizations have worked together to create a proposal to remove up to 50,000 horses from herds on public lands in the West. These horses would be relocated to public and private pastures where they would be cared for until their natural deaths. The proposal has been met with resistance from some animal activist groups, but Messmer says actions need to be taken to prevent wild horse and burro populations from destroying the ecosystems where they live. 

“I don’t know where this is going, but it can’t continue to exist where it’s at right now because the ecological costs are here now - it’s happening,” he said. 

The group will host a summit at the end of May to bring together advocates and opponents of the proposal to discuss this issue further. Any changes to the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act must be approved by the U.S. Congress.