© 2022 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

On Science: Wild horses: How do you manage a myth?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 30, 2009 - The helicopter cowboys are at it again. For 38 years, our federal government has waged war against wild horses. Every year starting about now the Bureau of Land Management starts rounding up wild horses from federal rangeland, helicopters flying low to drive terrified free-running horses into pens. And every year a spat of stories appear in newspapers and television decrying this “heartless” program. The year 2010 is to be no exception.

Animal rights protesters have arranged demonstrations around the country today urging the Obama administration to put a halt, at least for a year or so, to the BLM roundup.

The story is not a new one. Wild horses have roamed the open rangeland of Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming and Arizona for centuries, descendants of horses brought to the New World by the Spanish in the 1500s. They were never common, as life is hard on the high, almost desert-like ranges, wolves capturing the infirm, unwary and less fleet. But the horses survived, and persisted. For three centuries, wild horses have been part of our Western landscape, and like the cowboy have become a seamless part of the Western myth we all absorb as children.

What changed the picture was us. The settling of the American West brought ranchers and cattle onto the high plains in the 1800s. Protecting their free-ranging livestock, ranchers killed wolves and coyotes. By the early 1900s, there were a lot fewer wolves to attack cattle – or wild horses. Free of the predator that had limited their numbers, the number of wild horses began to grow. And grow.

Anyone who lives in the West County of St. Louis knows the next chapter of the story. Like urban deer populations that thrive in subdivisions with no predators, wild horse populations expanded rapidly. And just as urban deer populations create problems for gardeners and automobile drivers, so numerous wild horses created new problems for cattle ranchers.

There is not a lot of grass on the high plains of Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming and Arizona, and every mouthful that a wild horse eats is one not available to a cow. Even worse, a horse crops much closer to the ground than a cow, so that the expanding herds of wild horses came to be viewed as destroying grazing land. From the ranchers’ point of view, wild horses were simply thieves stealing the food their cattle needed to survive, every horse lessening the number of cows the land could support.

Solution? Get rid of the wild horses.

Wild Horse and Burro Act

The key federal legislation was passed in 1972 with the strong support of Western state legislators. Called “The Wild Horse and Burro Act,” the federal program set out to capture and remove 10,000 horses a year from BLM lands. After being inspected by veterinarians, treated, vaccinated, and branded, the horses were to be put up for adoption. Things were cheaper in those days, and the adoption price was set at $125 (the cost to the government was $1,100). Importantly, the adopters got title to an adopted wild horse “in fee simple” after one year if they cared for the horse.

In the first 20 years of the program, 190,000 horses were rounded up -- a very successful program, on the surface. But there was a mystery: who was adopting all those horses? You would think you could find 190,000 horses, but they seemed to have vanished. The answer to this mystery lay in a simple fact, one available to any legislator in 1972 but conveniently ignored: A horse, wild or otherwise, is worth $700 on average as meat.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where all the “adopted” horses were going.

It didn’t take federal auditors long, either. One example makes the case clearly. The rancher Victor McDarment ran a small cattle ranch in Rock Springs, Wyo. Every year his crew rounded up wild horses from the open Wyoming range, and every year these horses were adopted under the terms of the Wild Horse and Burro Act. Here is a list of the adoptions:

McDarment              16

estranged wife           9

children                     6

girl friend                   4

x-wife                        1

crew & families          54

TOTAL                        90

None of these horses could be accounted for. When asked where the 90 adopted horses were, McDarment said “I don’t keep track of every horse I own.”

Where they went, of course, is to the slaughterhouse. Auditors estimated that more than 90 percent of adopted horses had gone to the slaughterhouse soon after title had cleared, more than 80 percent of them young and healthy. There is a strong market in Europe and Asia for horse meat, and much of the wild horse meat seems to have ended up in dog food.

Permanent Holding Corrals

The outrage caused by these revelations led to much tighter regulation of wild horse adoptions. Only young healthy horses are put up for adoption, the rest being trucked to permanent holding facilities in the Midwest. There are over 34,000 no-longer-wild horses kept by the federal government in these corrals and pastures today, most of them in Kansas and Oklahoma.

That’s almost exactly the same number as run free in BLM-managed rangelands in 10 Western states (the current number of wild horses and burros is estimated by the government as 33,000). The Wild Horse and Burro Act is still on the books, and thousands of wild horses are still being removed from federal range land. The BLM estimates that 2,500 wild horses will be taken off the range in Nevada in the roundup started this winter, leaving about 900 still free (Why winter roundups? Because the animals are at lower elevations where they can be captured in shorter distances – easier on the helicopter pilots and less stress on the horses.)

Lesson from West County

Do you see the problem with this? Anyone living with all those deer in West County will. Every year’s cull of the natural wild horse population must be maintained in relative comfort by the federal government, with the result that every year the size of the government-maintained herd grows. And so every year the cost of maintaining this expanding herd grows -- an expensive business, growing ever more expensive.

The BLM is able to do the arithmetic. Two years ago, under the Bush administration, BLM administrators proposed a plan to euthanize unadopted horses in captivity. This is the same solution adopted this year by West County townships to deal with their exploding deer populations. It was, and is, the right course of action.

Didn’t happen, though. The proposed policy could not survive the “Bambi effect.” The public outcry was loud and pointed right at the BLM. “We must act now before the BLM has managed these magnificent animals into extinction,” singer Willie Nelson (right) said. The proposal was quickly withdrawn.

Instead, the Obama administration has proposed to double down on the present policy, buying extensive tracts of land in the East and Midwest to serve as permanent natural preserves and sanctuaries for mustangs. Unstated is the requirement that the mustangs be sterilized, lest the newly established horse herds explode in numbers just as urban deer populations do.

Protesters organizing the demonstrations today in San Francisco; Boulder Colo.; Chicago and elsewhere decry this latest proposal as a further concession to the cattle barons, and demand that wild horse roundups simply stop. “What represents freedom more than wild horses?” says author Deanne Stillman. “Most Americans are not happy about this stripping away of our heritage.”

Ignore Bambi

You see the point. Obama is trying to save the horses, while the protesters are focused on saving the myth. Short of abandoning the beef trade and bringing back the wolves, nothing is going to stop the wild horse population from growing explosively until starvation checks their numbers. Unless we step in.

To sort this out, it is useful to ignore John Wayne and Bambi for a moment, and instead take another look at the urban deer in West County. Can you imagine why Town and Country township did not take the Obama approach and buy a large parcel of land in southern Missouri, to which it would ship its excess deer each year?

It would cost a great deal of money to capture, transfer and maintain the deer for the rest of their natural lives, but that is not the real problem. The real problem would be to prevent the transferred herd from itself growing, just as it did in West County. Soon you would be faced with culling – the same sharpshooter solution as Town and Country elected to pursue, only done out of sight.

Hard as it is for a died-in-the-wool Democrat like me to admit, the Bush folks had it right. You don’t have to maintain a dead horse, and it will not reproduce. Managing the wild herds so that their numbers are not excessive would become a straightforward matter of adjusting the harvest to the population size.

Not managing the population is not an option. Freedom to starve is no freedom I respect. Someone is going to have to take the place of those Western wolves, either a sharpshooter or a helicopter pilot working for a sanctuary. It’s simply a matter of how much money you spend to keep down the size of the wild horse herds. Bearing in mind that the money going to establish wild horse sanctuaries could instead have gone to education, health care or medical research, I opt for Bush’s sharpshooters.

'On Science'

George B. Johnson's "On Science" column looks at scientific issues and explains them in an accessible manner. 

Johnson, Ph.D., professor emeritus of Biology at Washington University, has taught biology and genetics to undergraduates for more than 30 years. Also professor of genetics at Washington University’s School of Medicine, Johnson is a student of population genetics and evolution, renowned for his pioneering studies of genetic variability. He has authored more than 50 scientific publications and seven texts.

As the founding director of The Living World, the education center at the St Louis Zoo, from 1987 to 1990, he was responsible for developing innovative high-tech exhibits and new educational programs.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.