By Colin Tiernan, Twin Falls Times-News
January 27, 2021
This is some of the most desolate country in America.
It’s a land of brown-yellow grass, buttes and little else. This is a place where the few roads are gravel at best and often rugged two-tracks. There aren’t even any significant natural water sources out here.
But this unforgiving Idaho desert is home to one of the state’s six wild horse herds.
Last summer, the Bureau of Land Management gathered up most of the small Saylor Creek herd, and removed the horses from the range to trim down the population. On a cold, gray day in November, the BLM took 11 of the Saylor Creek mustangs out of Boise corrals and drove them back home.
The animals stood quiet and calm in their trailers right before their release onto the range. When the gates opened, they leaped out and huddled up. Then, almost in unison, they started running. They cut across the rolling desert in a short line of browns, grays and tans, shrinking into the distance.
Mustangs might inspire more passion and controversy than any other American animal. Many rural westerners, especially those connected to the livestock industry, want to see their numbers dramatically reduced and say they’re causing both ecological and economic harm. Wild horse advocates criticize the BLM’s management policies and argue any negative impacts caused by mustangs pale in comparison to those caused by cattle.
No matter what you think about wild horses, they’re an icon of the West and an important part of the country’s culture and past.
“They are who we say we are as Americans,” American Wild Horse Campaign communications director Grace Kuhn said. “(They represent) the freedom, the resilience, the untamed spirit of the American West that people hold really, really dear.”
SMALL HERD WITH A STORY
The Saylor Creek herd is young.
The story goes that back in the 1960s, a few locals took some mares from the Challis wild horse herd and released them into the desert south of Glenns Ferry. Someone added a registered stud to the herd, and the horses started reproducing. Locals also released additional horses into the desert from time to time.
The Saylor Creek herd is especially reliant on human intervention. If ranchers and the BLM hadn’t installed 90 miles of water pipelines and dozens of troughs for livestock, the horses wouldn’t have anything to drink out in the desert.
At first glance, the Saylor Creek herd doesn’t seem especially significant. The BLM says it’s not unique, genetically. Today it’s made up of fewer than 50 horses. That’s not especially small by Idaho standards — the Gem State has only about 500 mustangs in its six herd management areas right now — but it’s minuscule compared to Nevada’s herds, which, on average, have about 500 head each.
The Saylor Creek herd has gained some fame in the courts, though.
Back in 2015, the BLM decided to manage the Saylor Creek mustangs as a non-reproducing herd. The agency didn’t want to keep allowing the animals to reproduce and have to periodically remove some to keep the population at 50 — the agency’s Appropriate Management Level for the area. Instead, the BLM wanted to sterilize the Saylor Creek herd and maintain 50 mustangs by bringing in sterile horses removed from other Idaho herds.
There still would have been mustangs at Saylor Creek, but eventually, none of them would have been descended from the original animals.
Wild horse advocates said the move could set a dangerous precedent, so they took the BLM to court and won, blocking the change. A federal judge ruled the BLM would have been violating the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 by not allowing the Saylor Creek herd to reproduce.
The act states that the BLM must manage for “wild and free-roaming” herds with viable, self-sustaining populations.
WHY TAKE HORSES OUT OF THE WILD?
Gathering the Saylor Creek herd this summer was relatively easy compared to some BLM roundups.
Oftentimes the BLM has to use helicopters to herd mustangs toward capture sites. At Saylor Creek, there’s an easier, cheaper way. The BLM simply had to empty the water pipes and troughs. They essentially left one water source on the range as bait to draw the horses in and caught them in bunches from Aug. 5 to Aug. 24.
Back in May, the BLM estimated there were 131 horses in the Saylor Creek herd. The agency wanted to catch all of them with the bait trap. After weeks of trying, however, the BLM managed to catch only 104. This was the first time the BLM had gathered the Saylor Creek herd since 2010, when the Long Butte Fire necessitated the move. Thirty horses returned to the range the year after the fire.
To understand why the BLM removes wild horses, you first have to understand the federal law that protects all wild horses and burros.
The Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 charges the BLM with “maintain(ing) a thriving ecological balance among wild horse populations, wildlife, livestock and vegetation to protect the range from the deterioration associated with overpopulation.”
The wild horse and burro act was a unanimously approved, landmark piece of legislation, enacted at a time when wild horses were under serious threat. Fifty years ago wild horse numbers had dropped to about 27,000, a tiny fraction of the animals’ numbers in the 1800s.
Once Congress passed the act, wild horses fell under federal protection and no one but the government could legally remove them.
Since they received federal protection, wild horses’ numbers have risen dramatically. With few natural predators, and without anyone but the BLM removing them, the herds often increase by 15% or 20% a year.
Right now the BLM says there are 95,114 wild horses and burros on public lands in 10 western states — burros account for less than 20% of that total.
The land can support only about 27,000 wild horses and burros — that’s the range-wide Appropriate Management Level — before being overgrazed and ecologically degraded, the BLM says. So the agency wants to remove horses to bring the number back down.
Overly high horse populations aren’t just disastrous for the environment and livestock operators, BLM National Wild Horse and Burro Program public affairs specialist Heather Tiel-Nelson said. It’s bad for the horses.
“It turns into a situation where we can no longer manage healthy horses on healthy rangelands,” Tiel-Nelson said. “The horses you see start to really decline in their body condition and they starve and they can thirst to death. That does not follow our mandate.”
Beyond land degradation issues, the livestock industry tends not to be a huge fan of wild horses. That’s because the animals can compete with cattle and sheep for forage. In the past, ranchers could remove wild horses to pare back competition. Since 1971, only the BLM can do that, but the agency hasn’t been maintaining herds at their Appropriate Management Levels. Some ranchers, mainly in Nevada, say wild horses are eating all the forage, ravaging the land and practically destroying their operations and livelihoods.
Nevada is home to about half of the West’s wild horses and burros, and it also deals with the bulk of the animals’ negative impacts. Idaho’s herds are mostly at their Appropriate Management Levels, in large part due to this year’s Saylor Creek herd gather and the Challis herd gather last year.
Gooding rancher John Faulkner, whose livestock graze in the Saylor Creek herd management area, said the BLM does a good job managing the mustangs. Horses haven’t negatively impacted his operation in years, although they can cause problems when their numbers get too high.
Even at relatively lower numbers, they can cause some problems.
“They hang around certain water holes and beat the hell out of them,” Faulkner said.
JUST A SCAPEGOAT?
Wild horse advocates have often criticized the BLM’s wild horse management strategies for ethical reasons. Helicopter roundups are cruel and lead to horse injuries and deaths, they say.
But advocates also have a host of more scientific objections to the BLM’s policies.
Few deny that wild horses can cause damage in some instances, but they point out cattle and sheep dramatically outnumber horses and burros on public lands. There are 37 cows on public lands in the West for every wild horse, the American Wild Horse Campaign’s Kuhn said.
For example, about 1,000 cattle and sheep graze the Saylor Creek herd management area for most of the year. Horses are out there year-round, and eat more forage per animal than cattle and sheep, but the Saylor Creek herd doesn’t eat nearly as much grass as livestock.
Livestock in the management area are allocated approximately 10,000 AUMs — that’s the amount of forage needed by a cow and a calf for a month. One horse equates to 1 AUM, so the Saylor Creek horses are using fewer than 600 AUMs.
It’s livestock, not horses, causing the vast majority of the damage, advocates and conservationists say.
“If you care about ecology, the cattle are the ones to get rid of first,” Western Watersheds Project executive director Erik Molvar said. “There’s a lot of blame-shifting going on out there on public lands, where relatively few and rare wild horses get blamed for the damage that’s being caused by a relatively large and overwhelming number of cattle.”
Tiel-Nelson said you can’t compare wild horse and livestock grazing, adding that it’s “apples and oranges.”
Karen Launchbaugh, a University of Idaho rangeland ecology professor and director of the school’s rangeland center noted that livestock grazing can be managed better than grazing by wild horses. If cattle are overgrazing, it’s easier to fence them out of areas or take them off the land, she said.
“We are able to manage livestock impacts much more than we are wild horses,” Launchbaugh said.
Wild horse advocates and conservationists also say the BLM’s wild horse policies don’t make financial sense. Removing animals and holding them off the range is incredibly expensive. For instance, holding horses at the BLM’s Boise corral costs about $4.75 per head per day.
There were a whopping 48,000 horses and burros (just 1,400 burros) in off-range corrals as of August. Those animals cost the BLM $56 million in fiscal year 2020. That’s roughly three-quarters of the $87 million the agency spent on wild horses and burros. The BLM sets aside approximately 10% of its overall budget for its wild horse and burro program.
Adoptions are one way the BLM tries to lower holding costs, but people adopt only a few thousand animals a year. There were 5,130 wild horse and burro adoptions in 2019.
On top of that, wild horse proponents point out that the BLM loses millions of dollars every year on public lands livestock grazing. If grazing were scaled back, taxpayers would save money, they say.
CAN BLM, CONSERVATIONISTS FIND COMMON GROUND ON MUSTANGS?
Emotions run high on both sides of the wild horse debate and there isn’t a lot of agreement between the groups.
There’s even disagreement on whether wild horses belong on the land at all. People who want fewer wild horses point out that the animals have been here only since the 1500s when the Spanish released some animals onto the land.
But wild horse advocates note that, while horses died out in North America more than 10,000 years ago, they evolved here. Horses aren’t an invasive species, they say, just a re-introduced one.
There is some common ground between advocates and opponents: Many would like to see the BLM administer more contraceptives, limiting the number of mustang pregnancies.
“You can keep horses on the range, curb their populations and it doesn’t affect their natural behaviors and allows them to continue to be wild and free-roaming,” Kuhn said.
The agency does do some fertility treatments. The mares released back into the Saylor Creek herd this November were given contraceptives for instance. But the BLM spends relatively little on mustang birth control — just $314,402 in the last fiscal year.
Kuhn admitted that fertility treatments aren’t a great option for every herd. Some herds are too remote, so BLM staff or volunteers can’t get out to shoot the animals with birth control darts. Plus, the contraceptives last a few years at best and aren’t 100% effective.
But, she said, if the BLM focused more on contraceptives, holding and capture costs would decline dramatically.
If the BLM doesn’t change its approach, it’s going to run out of money, Kuhn said.
“It’s going to crash the program,” she said of the BLM’s off-range holding policy. “So we are urging the BLM to act now (and) implement fertility control.”
In the next few years, the BLM plans to remove thousands of horses and get closer to the 27,000 figure. The bureau’s wild horse strategies will probably continue to be controversial, but it’s unlikely public opinion will allow for a return to the days of wild horse slaughters. Horses are simply too important to America’s identity.
“America was built via horseback really,” Tiel-Nelson said. “I think that excites an amazing passion in people.”