The US public lands are home to thousands of wild horses and burros. The federal public lands, managed by the Bureau of Land Management under the Department of the Interior and the US Forest Service under the Department of Agriculture, house some of the most rich, vast and inviting North American landscapes. Those federal public lands belong collectively to all of us who are US citizens.
Federal public lands are multi-use, meaning many parties are allowed to use the land for various activities. This includes individuals and corporations. Everything from gas & oil to mining to ranching to hunting & fishing to hikers to bikers to campers to horseback riders and more. And of course, that open land is home to an incredible variety of wildlife including those wild horses and burros.
The BLM is charged with managing not only the land itself but also all the people/company who want to use the land. Unfortunately for the mustangs and burros (and other wild animals), there is a long history of their presence being in conflict other interested land users. For wild horses and burros, that can mean being rounded up off the range, placed in long-term holding facilities or put up for adoption. Millions of tax payer dollars are spent on this process every year. Those that survive the roundups end up living very different lives from the ones they were born into originally.
As for me personally, Mustangs have long been of interest. I remember first reading about mustangs as a child and feeling moved to help. I set up a cup on my elementary school desk and asked for donations to help a particular mustang organization whose name I no longer recall. I proudly mailed in all the coins I collected, maybe a couple of dollars worth.
Fast forward many years later, and I briefly moved to the area of Grand Junction in Mesa County, Colorado. Mesa County sits on Colorado’s Western slope. It is about a four hour drive West from Denver and is a stone’s throw away from the border with Utah. It is a high desert paradise out there. Mesa county is about 70% public land with over 900,000 acres managed by the BLM and over 500,000 acres managed by the US Forest Service. It is also home to the Little Bookcliff Mountain range that houses a wild horse herd.
During my six month stint in Colorado, I got to trail ride on BLM land as well as hike into the Little Bookcliff Mountains and see the wild horse herd for myself. It was an emotional experience for me. Never mind that I can look out my living room window at any moment and see a horse in my backyard. Meeting these wild horses was different, and I couldn’t get enough of it. These were the wild horses that I read about all my life. These were the ones I had donated money for both as a child and as adult. These were the ones that I still regularly write to my Senate and Congress people about. These are the ones that I would like to see remain wild.
Once back in the Midwest, I ended up fostering a series of horses for the Indiana Horse Rescue. One of my first fosters was a formerly wild horse that had been given the name, Adonis. Many years earlier, Adonis had been rounded up off the range in Nevada by the BLM and marked with a freeze brand. For those of you that don’t know, the freeze brand markings give information about where and when the animal was taken. Go to https://wildhorseeducation.org/blm-freezemark/ to learn how to read a BLM freeze brand.
Sometime after round up, he entered one of several mustang training programs housed in US prisons. After completing his training program, Adonis was placed for public adoption. While there are certainly formerly wild horses that end up being domesticated with the help of loving owners, Adonis’s story differed. After Adonis was adopted and moved to Indiana, he and another BLM mustang named Willie ended up being starved and neglected. Authorities were alerted and both Adonis and Willie eventually arrived at the Indiana Horse Rescue. To read more about their journey to the Indiana Horse Rescue go to https://www.indystar.com/story/news/2015/03/25/starved-horses-expose-loophole-in-indianas-neglect-law/70417488/.
After gaining some weight at the rescue, Adonis came to me for fostering and was quickly adopted by a family. Last I heard, it looked like he was finally loved and happy. For further information about my equine fostering experiences, check out these links to an essay I wrote entitled “Temporary Shelter” that was published in Equus magazine at https://equusmagazine.com/horse-world/temporary-shelter-53517 and another to a recent The Backyard Horse Blog post https://thebackyardhorseblog.wordpress.com/2020/02/26/looking-for-another-horse-this-spring-consider-fostering-or-adopting-your-next-horse/.
Willie, after a failed adoption or two, was taken under the wing of Madison Shambaugh. You may know her as Mustang Madie. She provided Willie with a wonderful restart in life. Willie became quite famous among her followers as she detailed online his training journey with her. Willie was later adopted by a new family. If you would like to read about Mustang Madie’s decision to take on Willie, go to https://www.mustangmaddy.com/lesson-5-saving-willie-saving-the-world/.
I respect that opinions about the wild horse and burro issue vary widely. There is something like 200 years worth of policies, practices and beliefs that continue to play out today. There is a ton of history behind what is going on right this moment with our federal public lands, the animals and all the various parties that use the land. There are many competing interests all wanting to advocate for their particular industry rights. And of course, federal land is contained within the boundaries of individual States with governments and citizens that have their own interests and opinions. Talk about a complicated issue to unpack and navigate.
As for me, I personally would like to see the wild horse and burro round ups largely stopped. While the BLM often talks about a wild horse overpopulation problem that creates land degradation, other organizations with boots on the ground don’t agree. If you are interested in learning more about wild horses and burros and about organizations that advocate for them to remain on the range, I recommend Wild Horse Education (WHE). Wild Horse Education wants to inform the public about our public lands, public land use and mustang and burros issues. They work on the ground with the mustangs on the range as well as advocating for them in political and legal spheres. If you have some extra time on your hands and have always wanted to learn more about these issues, please visit this link to Wild Horse 101 at https://wildhorseeducation.org/2020/04/09/reference-wild-horses-101/. Even if you ultimately don’t agree with their viewpoints, the information they have to share is fascinating.
On a similar note, a document I would highly recommend is “Moving Forward: A Unified Statement on the Humane, Sustainable, and Cost-Effective On-Range Management of America’s Wild Horses and Burros.” Drafted as a united statement by multiple wild horse and burro advocacy groups in 2018, it details solutions to the management of wild horses and burros that mostly stand in contrast to how the BLM typically manages them. If you ever wondered how the horses might be successfully managed without round ups, this in the document to read. You can find this report at http://www.idausa.org/unifiedstatement.
Once travel restrictions are lifted for many of us post-Corona Virus pandemic, I would encourage anyone who doesn’t already live out West or hasn’t visited the public lands to schedule a visit. See if you can visit a wild horse herd area. Once you have visited our federal public lands, you may come away with a new and fresh perspective to better inform your own opinion of these issues.