By perpetuating the myth of an overpopulation of wild horses and burros on public lands, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has succeeded in leasing more than 80% of the wild habitat they were tasked with managing these animals on following the passing of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act in 1971, to private and corporate interests. This amounts to a land grab of over 22 million acres over 50 years, as this native, keystone species has been systematically removed to support the commercial plundering of the natural ecosystems they inhabit, at significant taxpayer expense. The ecologically devastating, extractive, industrial practices that have replaced them on those lands include livestock grazing, oil and natural gas drilling, gold and copper mining, big game hunting, and lithium mining.
The truth is that wild equines inhabit just 12 percent of federal rangelands, and are vastly outnumbered on these lands by up to 50:1 in some areas by livestock, a ratio that is increasing every year as these animals are removed by the tens of thousands, many of them incarcerated for life in government run holding facilities, or sent over the border to slaughter. With the BLM effectively owned and operated by the livestock industry, the number of wild equines now remaining on public lands is less than 80,000 on the 245 million acres of land that the BLM manages overall, while approximately 2 million cattle and other livestock are permitted to graze on these lands, despite their presence being vastly detrimental to the natural ecologies that equines first evolved on. Ultimately the BLM plans to reduce the population of wild horses and burros to just 27,000 on the 27 million acres they were tasked with managing them on through an Act of Congress in 1971 that was meant to protect them from the threat of "capture, branding, harassment, and death". This is the same number they had been reduced to when these animals were considered to be "fast disappearing" in the 1950's, from generations of ranchers removing them to profit from the land.
Livestock grazing affects more acres than any other activity on US public lands, having degraded and destroyed over 700 million acres of Western grasslands. Because these impacts are so widespread, livestock grazing has been called the single most pervasive and damaging activity on those lands. Furthermore, cattle waste pollutes water sources, in fact livestock is the greatest non-point source polluter of water in the West. It is also the single greatest cause of biodiversity loss and the greatest threat to endangered and threatened species, having resulted in the listing of 90 endangered and threatened species across the nation. Not only do livestock consume huge amounts of native grasses, they also trample the soil and microbiotic crusts, resulting in increased erosion and soil compaction, massively increased runoff, flooding, and the decline of soil nutrients. Livestock also promote the spread of undesirable plants, and destroy streamside vegetation.
Another myth that has been propagated by the BLM to justify the systemic removal of wild horses and burros is that they contribute to drought on public lands, the truth being that the extractive practices replacing them require far greater quantities of water than wild horses and burros could ever consume. According to the BLM's own cattle vs. horse statistic of 30:1 on the range, cows use between 480-720 gallons of water per day on cold days, and 960-1,440 gallons of water (per day) on warm days, compared to a meagre 8-14 gallons (per day) on any day for the wild equines. As for other industrial practices, fracking only one well requires an average of 15 million gallons of water, injected at high pressure, along with chemicals and sand to open up cracks in shale to release oil and gas, and the extraction of merely one ton of lithium uses approximately 1/2 million liters of water. Both practices lead to contamination of surrounding water, soil, and air.
This article speaks to the insanity of declaring that drought is being caused by these animals, where a wild burro might consume 2-6 gallons of water a day and it takes 500,000 gallons of water to produce 1 metric ton of lithium. Wild equines are in fact known to increase water availability at various times of the year and within a range of ecosystems. In wintertime they break the ice with their hooves, allowing other species access to water, and in drought conditions they will dig to create small water catchments, creating intermittent riparian habitat for desert species. New research shows that this equid ingenuity has many far reaching benefits for the ecosystem. In one study, scientists found that a total of 57 native species came to these equine-created wells to drink, including: raptors, such as red-tailed hawks and Cooper’s hawks; smaller birds such as yellow warblers, hooded orioles, and scrub jays; and large mammals such as mule deer, bighorn sheep, and badgers; and even Colorado river toads.
Unlike the Big Energy and Big Ag projects that are devastating the land, and are largely exempt from many of the regular federal restrictions, having been given special status by the government with even more de-regulations proposed, if wild horses and burros were returned as a native wildlife species on public lands and supported to live as they first evolved to in their original natural habitats they would be benefiting these ecosystems. Science has shown that they contribute toward ecological balance through their natural lifestyle habits of high intensity grazing in short bouts (a practice replicated in regenerative agriculture, known as "mob grazing"), trampling, and wallowing, and that their habits support many of the native species of animals and plant life they co-evolved with over millions of years, to survive and thrive. This exposes another myth that has succeeded in convincing many environmentalists that wild horses and burros are destructive, namely that they threaten native sage grouse habitat, now unproven.
Many people are unaware that the species Equus is indigenous to North America and that horses and other equids dominated the grasslands here for hundreds of millions of years. Along with other large herbivores such as bison and elk, equids helped to cultivate and maintain the health of the grassland ecologies they populated, and as the only large-bodied herbivore native to the US that has a single stomach digestive system, they do not ferment and digest the majority of the native plant and grass seeds they consume (unlike ruminants), making them uniquely beneficial. Unlike grazing livestock they travel across the landscape for up to 20 miles a day, fertilizing and reseeding the landscape with intact native seeds, promoting nutrient cycling, and sequestering carbon compounds back into the soil.
Instead of honoring the rights of these animals to live freely in their natural wild habitats, and benefiting the ecosystems they co-evolved with, the BLM has subjected them to an aggressive removal campaign, based solely on misinformation, in order to lease that same land to for-profit industries that are devastating it. Wild equines could be seen as an "indicator species", signaling the environmental degradation that is sure to follow their removal. In understanding how these issues are interwoven, and how the wild horses and burros are the modern equivalent of the canary in the coal mine for U.S. public lands, we are advocating for Native peoples, wild horse and burro advocates, and environmental groups to come together over this issue, as in protecting these native animals we will also be protecting the land.
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE ONGOING LAND GRABS...
The Cow in the Room: Wyoming Checkerboard
Wild Horses Vs. Livestock on Public Lands
Saving America’s Wild Horses and Burros
“Conservation is not just about saving species;
it's about saving ecosystems and the delicate balance of nature.”