Wild horses on public lands: Why is the debate about what’s good for the land and not what’s good for the horses?

Wild horses on public lands: Why is the debate about what’s good for the land and not what’s good for the horses?

8 Aug 2015
wild horses in a western landscape

Wild horse trapping programs have been carried out in the U.S. for decades, particularly in the Western areas such as Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Montana, Oregon, and Idaho. This past year the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has enacted several measures throughout the nation in order to “maintain the ecological health of our nation’s public rangelands.”1 A series of roundups and removals have been carried out since the fall of 2014, and will be continued through September 2015. According to the BLM treatment schedule, by September 591 mares will be given fertility control while nearly 2, 490 horses will be removed from the lands. Although the mares are given contraceptives with the intention of protecting the land rather than the horses, it will prevent the births of horses who would have been terrorized and killed.

Although the BLM continues to consider other methods, currently the majority of the plan involves “removing” horses. These horses will suffer a great deal of stress from being kidnapped and separated from their families. Their future will also most likely be bleak in the corrals they are brought to where there are high death rates. Some horses are trained by the BLM to participate in future roundups, where they run in front of the horses being chased to make it “less stressful.”2

Helicopters and bait trappings are used to catch the horses. Helicopters are used to scare horses in order to make them run, often for miles over dangerous terrain, into an area in which they can be captured. This often causes injury and death.

Passive traps, or bait traps, are another method used by the BLM in some states. These traps lure the horses into a pen with hay. After they are caught in the holding pens, the horses are loaded onto trucks to be taken to holding corrals, a procedure which can be dangerous for panicked horses. According to an article on Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), records show that bait traps in Oregon have killed and injured more horses than helicopter roundups. The horses panic when they are caught in the traps and slam against the metal bars while attempting to escape, causing injuries that are sometimes fatal.

Oregon BLM Wild Horse Manager Rob Sharp says that even when care is taken, some horses panic and get injured. “Some degree of serious injury or mortality should be expected in the handling of wild horses, even domestic horses,” Sharp says. “Accidents happen.”3

Many other abuses from similar programs can be witnessed on video. Horses are chased to exhaustion. Families are immediately split up. They are forced into trucks with violent measures, such as electric prodding, or by forceful pulling of their tails.

After the horses are captured, they are sent to short-term corrals or long term holding pastures. The corrals can be hazardous for the horses as well. In just one Oregon corral, BLM’s “Dead and Destroyed” reports obtained by OPB through the Freedom of Information Act, show that 199 horses died between 2010 and 2013. 81 were found dead, and 118 were listed as “euthanized,” which usually means they were killed because they were sick or injured. 41 died from unknown causes, while many other horses died from broken legs, broken necks, gelding procedures, spinal injuries, and roundup complications.

Documents obtained by the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign (WHPC) show that out of 1,263 wild horses rounded up in Wyoming since April of 2015, 89 died during roundups and 75 died in holding areas.4

Horses in holding pastures can be put up for adoption, or they can be auctioned for sale. Horses sold or adopted will become “pleasure, show, or work horses.”5 In other words, they will be exploited for human use and enjoyment as laborers, for entertainment in shows like races, and for recreational riding.

Some states allow ranchers to remove horses from public lands

In early April 2015, U. S. district court judge Dee Benson approved a case brought forward by ranchers seeking to eliminate 1,350 horses in Utah.6 The ranchers claimed that the BLM was not properly “managing” the wild horse population, which supposedly led to reduced grazing on public lands for their livestock.

“Wild horses are only present on 10 percent of that land. There are under 4,000 horses on two million acres of land. That’s one horse per 500 acres. There’s no horse overpopulation problem. We have a cattle and sheep overpopulation on our public lands,” said WHPC director Suzanne Roy.

Similar suits from ranchers making the same claims have been filed in other states. Last March a U.S. district judge in Nevada sided with the WHPC, and rejected the rancher’s case. In the past few months, the federal court dismissed a similar lawsuit in Wyoming, while a decision is pending for another lawsuit in Pershing County, Nevada.7


Wild horse roundups in Canada

In 2014, Alberta’s Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Ministry launched a program that allowed for the capture of up to 200 horses in the area west and northwest of Calgary. 8 Last February the Alberta government ordered the capture of up to 60 wild horses that month.9

Permits to trap horses are granted to members of the public who apply for a license.8 Many of the horses have been captured to be slaughtered, while others have been sold, or will be trained for human use.

“They just (put) them in a trailer and away they go to the meat barn… they’re out of their hair really, really fast,” says Bob Henderson of the Wild Horses of Alberta Society.10

The horses are considered “invasive” because they are not native to Alberta, and are not considered under the same laws as other wild animals.


Wild horse culls in Australia

Australia has the largest wild horse population in the world, with estimates as high as 400,000. As in the U. S. and Canada, the horses are considered invasive because they are not native. They also pose supposed threats to native Australian wildlife. Culling programs in which marksmen shoot at horses from helicopters have been carried out to reduce the population.

In November of 2013, more than 7,000 horses were killed in Australia’s East Kimberley region. A member of activist group Wild Horse Kimberly, was present at this cull and claimed that some horses were not killed, but were merely left wounded. A vet who oversaw this cull admitted that one percent of the horses were not killed quickly and were left to die “a protracted death.”11

It has been argued that the horses should be killed because the harsh winters in the Snowy Mountain areas have led to starvation and suffering from cold for the horses. However, the fact that they are suffering should not be a justification for their slaughter. If they are suffering, humans should help them rather than harm them further.

A ban on shooting wild horses from helicopters has been in place in New South Wales since 2000. Last January, Minister Rob Stokes has indicated aerial culling will not be considered in an updated horse management plan for the Snowy Mountains.12

“I have instructed the National Parks and Wildlife Service to explore wild horse control methods that are acceptable to the community,” Stokes said. However, other methods such as roundups and auction programs will be allowed.

The current ban on aerial culling was introduced in the face of public backlash after more than 600 horses were culled at Guy Fawkes River National Park in 2000. Aerial culls are still carried out in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.


Wild horses are discriminated against due to speciesist conservationist preferences

Humans tend to prefer animals that are “native,” and disregard animals brought by humans from other places simply because they are “foreign.” Prejudice against foreigners is unjustified when applied to nonhuman animals, just as it is when applied to humans. There is no morally relevant reason to prefer a native species or group to another.

Horses are attacked and killed to preserve certain ecosystems. Yet ecosystems don’t suffer, individual beings do. Most of us would agree that it is not OK to kill humans to preserve preferred features in the environment, so why should we accept such treatment towards nonhumans?

Another reason horses are killed or sold into servitude is to benefit ranchers and others who raise animals for human use and economic gain. The value of the animals to them is based primarily on how much profit or other benefit can be gained from them.

The BLM’s measures, and similar programs such as those carried out in Canada and Australia are speciesist because they do not account for the interests of the horses themselves. If we are to reject speciesism, we must reject the roundup programs that hurt sentient beings in favor of the environment or the economic interests of animal exploiters.


1 U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management (2019) “Tentative: FY 2019 wild horse and burro removal by date as of June 21, 2019”, blm.gov [accessed on 14 October 2019].

2 U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management (2014) “Wild horse & burro gathers”, blm.gov [accessed on 11 July 2015].

3 Oregon Public Broadcasting (2014) “Live trapping often results in death for wild horses”, Oregon Public Broadcasting, 5 February [Accessed on 14 July 2015].

4 American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign (2015) “BLM Wyoming checkerboard roundup – Mounting death toll”, Wyoming “Checkerboard” Wild Horse Deaths in Holding [accessed on 15 July 2015].

5 U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management (2015) “Adoption program”, blm.gov [accessed on 21 July 2015].

6 The Daily Beast (2015) “Protected wild horses dying for ranchers’ profit”, The Daily Beast, 21 April [accessed on 14 July 2017].

7 American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign (2015) “Court grants wild horse advocates’ motion to intervene in another rancher anti-mustang lawsuit”, News [accessed on 15 July 2015].

8 Alberta Environment and Parks (2014) “Managing Alberta’s feral horse population: the rules and regulations of a capture season”, Alberta Environment and Parks [accessed on 17 July 2015].

9 The Canadian Press (2015) “Wild horse roundup ordered by Alberta government”, CBC Radio Canada, Feb 04 [accessed on 15 June 2015].

10 Vincent, D. (2014) “Alberta’s wild horse ‘cull’ angers animal advocates”, The Star, Jan. 24 [accessed on 22 July 2015].

11 Marks, K. (2013) “To cull or not? ‘Brumby’ wild horses divide Australians”, The Independent, 29 December [accessed on 17 July 2015].

12 Singhal, P. & Elliot, T. (2015) “Aerial culling of brumbies in Snowy Mountains: Controversial ban to remain”, The Sunday Morning Herald, January 3 [accessed on 17 July 2015].