The colossal backlash of wild horses on wildlife

 Wild horses problems in the West

The Western wild horse impact

Wild horse and burros are a hot topic in the West. It's an issue that environmentalists, ranchers, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials and hunters can never agree on. The BLM manages, protects, and controls wild horses and burros under the authority of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. This law authorizes the BLM to remove excess wild horses and burros to sustain the health and productivity of the public lands. The BLM also manages the nation’s public lands for multiple uses in accordance with the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act. The BLM manages wild horses and burros as part of this multiple-use mandate.

Wild horses are a constant in the West and have roamed across the landscape for a long time. Wild horses and burros have virtually no natural predators and their herd size can double about every four years. According to the BLM, there are an estimated 47,329 wild horses and 10,821 burros on BLM-managed rangelands in 10 Western states as of March 1, 2015. These populations have a direct impact on mule deer, elk and other wildlife for both habitat and water.

Wild horse quote

Compare the current population to the 2014 estimate of 40,815 wild horses and 8,394 burros, it's apparent that the wild horse and burro population is growing at an alarming rate. The growth rate from 2014 to 2015 is 16% and the the maximum appropriate management level (AML) is approximately 26,715 and the number of wild horses and burros exceeds the AML by 31,435!

Wild horse population status

 Nevada wild horses while hunting for mule deer
Photo credit: Brady Miller

The current population levels are a huge issue for big game and other wildlife for a number of reasons, most importantly because of the competition for water. While wild horses compete with wildlife for feed, the long-term drought has decreased the water availability across many western states and water sources will be heavily impacted should heavy rains not come this spring and summer. Hunters who use water holes as blind locations for hunting may see continued wild horse encounters. The BLM says that the current estimated population far exceeds the number that they have determined can exist in balance with other public rangeland resources.

Continued below.

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Wild horse and burro populations in each Western state
as of March 1, 2015*

StateHorsesBurrosTotalMax. AML
New Mexico175017583

Source: BLM
* 2015 was the last time a full survey was conducted
Wild free roaming horse and burro populations in 10 western states

Data collected from the BLM's annual Public Land Statistics.

Nevada... the hotspot for wild horses

If you've hunted in Nevada, you have likely ran into a few herds of wild horses. I can't begin to count the number of times I've been hunting in Nevada and have ran into wild horses. I have even witnessed wild horses surrounding a water source for the entire day. As I sat near this water hole, I watched the same mule deer buck try to access the water multiple times throughout the day but would not get access to water due to the horses.

Nevada's mule deer populations are at an all-time low, while wild horse and burro populations in Nevada are at an all-time high. Could that be related?

Nevada mule deer population estimate

Recently the Elko Daily Free Press covered a story on the reduction of cattle grazing allotments in Nevada due to an overpopulation of wild horses. Basically the BLM is going to close some of the cattle grazing allotments in order to provide feed for wild horses. Elko County Commissioner Demar Dahl said Tim Smith of the state BLM office told him most of the allotments would be completely closed to grazing, but a few of them could be left open with 50 percent reductions in grazing levels. At this point removing more of the horses is not option, and may not happen until later this fall. 

Nevada is in a difficult situation with wild horse and burro numbers

Greg Deimel, BLM Public Information Officer said the BLM has gathered 1,750 horses in the region since 2011 and it is still overpopulated by “thousands” of horses. Getting the population down to the minimum authorized level would involve removing over 1,000 horses from each of the four herd management areas, he said.

Julie Gleason, a member of the local Resource Advisory Council to the BLM said, “The only solution is to remove horses from the ranges, but every time we get something going, the environmentalists stop us.”

“It is an absolute disgrace that the misguided whims of environmentalists are given precedence over the livelihoods of our ranching families,” said Elko County Commissioner Rex Steninger.

Unchecked wild horse and burro populations

Did you know?

According to the BLM, most western rangelands produce only a few hundred pounds of vegetation per acre. A wild horse can eat their weight in dry forage every month, in many parts of Nevada, it can take 20 or more acres to feed one wild horse for a month!

Problem of slowing the population growth

With no natural predators, herd numbers grow at exponential rates. The National Academy of Sciences has reported that no highly effective fertility-control methods are currently available. In 2015 the BLM began investing $11 million in research to find effective methods to neuter and spay wild horses and develop longer-lasting contraceptive vaccines. With an additional 48,000 wild horses and burros in off-range (unadopted or unsold) holding facilities at a cost of over $49 million per year... it is easy to see that a solution to the increasing population needs to be found, especially because the total capacity of all BLM off-range holding facilities is 58,519 animals...

Will we see a gradual decline of mule deer and elk populations in some areas due to the increased pressure from these non-native wild horses? What will happen on a severe drought year to our native wildlife when wild horses and burros are competing for the already fragile water sources?

Hopefully, putting the problem in the spotlight will provide more incentive for the BLM to make progress toward a solution. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this issue.


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