Vanishing Mustangs: Are America's Wild Horses In Danger of Disappearing?

© Jaymi Heimbuch

A small band of mustangs lopes around their pasture at feeding time at Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary.

Wild horses have roamed the western United States for hundreds of years, ever since Spanish conquistadors brought them over during early explorations in the 1500s. But really, the horse has a far longer history on this continent. The horse actually evolved on the North American continent and did not die out until about 10,000 years ago. The more modern horses that arrived with the Spaniards were, in a way, returning home.

Since those new arrivals escaped or were turned loose, the wild mustang has become an iconic figure in American history. Their role in Native American culture, their status as a symbol of freedom and power, and their history in the founding of the west are all part of what makes this animal particularly special.

Yet, the mustang is disappearing from the west, and sadly it is with the help of the American government.

Finding Sanctuary In The West

Nestled in the hills of the central coast of California is a 300-acre ranch that is home to bands of wild horses. Return to Freedom, a non-profit wild horse sanctuary based in Lompoc, rescues mustangs that have been rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the government organization in charge of the federal lands on which wild horses reside as well as the care and management of the wild horses themselves. Here at the sanctuary, pastures have been carved out of the rolling hills and in each are small herds of wild horses driven from their home ranges across the west.

Founded in 1998 by Neda DeMayo, Return to Freedom focuses on allowing mustangs to exist freely on the sanctuary in family bands as they would in the wild, and in keeping horses from the same areas together in herds. For example, mustangs rescued from a round-up in Hart Mountain, Oregon remain together in one pasture, while those rescued from a round-up from the Challis Herd Management Area in Idaho stay together in another.

As I walked through the sanctuary's pastures, it was evident the diversity of mustangs to be found in different areas -- this band showing traits of their Spanish origin with dun coloring featuring black-tipped ears and faint zebra striping on their legs, and that band with their taller stature and red roan coloring showing the results of intermingling with various stock and draft horses turned loose by ranchers and farmers over the decades. The term "mustang" is truly an umbrella term with many unique strains having evolved over centuries in isolated areas, and Return to Freedom strives to maintain the varied heritages.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

A State of Semi-Wildness
Without being forced to interact with people, the herds maintain varied states of wildness. Opening the gate and entering one pasture, I might be met with standoffish horses that would move off if I came too close or tensing up if I made a strange movement. But in another pasture I might have a horse walk right up to me, eager to see what I was doing, nibble on my cameras and perhaps receive a few pats on the neck. It is the horses' choice how much interaction they have with visitors, and even those in the smallest corrals have enough room to keep their distance.

Meanwhile, older or injured horses are looked after by the sanctuary's equine manager, a happy but task-oriented woman who was forever running around the ranch catching up a foal for medication, or looking into how a mustang with strained triceps was doing in the barn where wounded horses heal, or fixing a busted pipe that fed the water troughs. Under the care of a concerned staff, there are certainly benefits to living here that the rescued horses would find no where else. Yet, the sanctuary cannot provide what wild living can: huge tracts of land over which to graze, migrate, form new bands and be truly wild. Even at this haven, the bands are in relatively small pastures and are fed hay twice a day for lack of free-growing forage.

While Return to Freedom is currently too small an operation to provide the vast acreage needed to mimic a wild habitat, the goals of the sanctuary are larger than just housing and re-homing wild horses, a monumental task in itself. The focus of Return to Freedom is educating the public about the plight of mustangs and creating a model for more sustainable mustang management that can be used by the BLM for wild horses. The ultimate goal of the sanctuary, no matter how idealistic, is exactly as the name suggests: to return a state of wild freedom to mustangs which has been etched away by decades of poor government management.

The Mustang Problem

While mustangs might be an idyllic part of the American landscape, they are also a deeply controversial subject. Horse lovers and many conservationists want these animals to remain part of the western ranges, but cattle ranchers view mustangs as competition for free-range forage for their cattle while still others view mustangs as a non-native, feral species destructive to fragile habitats. Caught in the middle of the debate are the dwindling numbers of wild horses still living across the west.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

A mustang watches her band move through scrub brush.

As late as the 1800s, there were an estimated 2 million wild horses across the western states alongside tens of millions of bison and other grazing species. Meanwhile, livestock production began to skyrocket in the 1850s and 1860s. As numbers of domestic cattle reached 35-40 million head, mustang numbers plummeted alongside numbers of other grazing species and predator species.

Eventually the use of planes and helicopters to run horses off the range and into holding pens became common. Forced to run at full speed for long periods of time, many horses didn't survive round-ups and those that did were torn from their family bands and badly injured. It wasn't until 1971 that Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFRHBA) giving legal protection to mustangs and sparing them from capture, harassment, branding and death. Or at least, that what it says on paper.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

A mustang stallion in the early morning sunlight.

Difficult and cruel round-ups continue to this day as pressures against wild horses persist. Decades after it was recognized that the wild horse was in danger of disappearing, the mustang is still on the chopping block. Since the WFHBA passed, rangeland designated for wild horses and burros has declined by 21.5 million acres. Today, there are fewer than 35,000 wild horses on some 27 million acres of federally managed land while millions of head of privately-owned cattle graze across some 245 million acres of public lands, including those acres designated for wild horses.

Privately-Owned Cattle Vs Wild Horses
An argument for this skewed ratio is that cows and sheep grazing on public lands are used for human consumption. They are an economic benefit, and a commodity. Wild horses are not necessarily either so don't cattle and sheep take priority? But again, these are public lands, not lands owned by ranchers -- public lands where other species should find refuge in a country where there is less and less human-free space in which to exist.

While the idea of mustangs as competition might have been a leaky but possible argument for managing herd numbers 150 years ago as the cattle industry was taking off, today it is an argument that cannot hold water at all. In fact, the reverse could be argued that cattle ranching is direct competition for the few mustangs left in the wild. Yet, the Bureau of Land Management has primarily bent to the will of the loud and powerful voice of cattle ranchers, offering a fault-filled program for managing mustangs that includes using tax-payer money to conduct annual round-ups that are often fatal for many of the horses captured.

The Wrong Round Up

Perhaps the most controversial subject surrounding wild horses, and the topic that gained widespread public interest in the plight of mustangs in the 1950s, is the methods and results of round-ups. Wild horses rounded up are often separated from their family bands, badly injured, strained by the intense running and stress of the journey, malnourished and dehydrated. But the problems for these wild horses merely begin here. If they make it through a round-up, they are kept in short-term and long-term holding pens.

Once here, the BLM attempts to adopt them out. This process could take years for some horses, especially those with a more fiery spirit that are deemed to be difficult or dangerous. The BLM has authority to sell horses over 10 years old (a still fairly young age for a horse that can live as long as 30 years) or younger horses that could not be adopted out after three tries. Often, these sold horses go straight to slaughter houses in Canada and Mexico for horse meat markets in France, Belgium, China and Japan.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Mustangs are able to maintain their herd dynamics when living at the Return to Freedom sanctuary.

All signs point to the fact that this is done to make room for cattle. The less competition for forage from horses, the more there is for cows and sheep. However, while it is true that proper management of horse populations is necessary, it is not the case that horses stand up as serious competition for cattle, nor do they cause the amount of damage to ecosystems that is often claimed as an excuse to further reduce numbers.

Misplaced Blame for Habitat Destruction
According to American Wild Horse Preservation (AWHP), "But reports by the General Accounting Office and the National Academy of Sciences dispute such claims: BLM has never presented any evidence that horses destroy habitat, nor that their population levels are what it claims they are. In fact, reducing horse populations in a given area has a negligible effect on range conditions: after massive wild horse roundups, herd areas show little or no improvement, especially in instances when cattle numbers remain the same (or increase)."

Though mustangs' impact on an ecosystem depends on many factors such as the number of animals and type of ecosystem, it is not often that wild horses live up to the blame placed on them as destructive forces. AWHP notes that the biology of the horse from the way it clips the grass with its teeth to the way it digests forage to the way it ranges farther away from riparian habitat than cattle illustrates the way it is less destructive to ecosystems than cattle. Even in the arid desert ecosystems of the southwest, horses have both positive and negative impacts. The negative includes soil compaction along established trails, yet the positive includes increased native plant diversity near the trails and anywhere feces was left by roaming horses.

The more animals per acre, the more problems occur, but with wild horse numbers at just a minute fraction of the numbers of cattle on these public lands, it's not likely horses are the species causing the most damage.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Return to Freedom tries to preserve family bands while rescuing rounded-up mustangs, however some herds like the one above form after arrival at the sanctuary.

Native? Non-Native? Does It Matter?
A problem for mustang conservationists is that most experts do not regard the mustang as a native species and it is regarded as a feral, not wild species. There are still wild horses in the world that have not been domesticated, such as the Przewalski's horse, and breeds that have been feral for centuries such as the Koniks in the United Kingdom that help keep marshlands healthy through their grazing patterns, or the white Camargue horses of southern France, which are thought to be one of the oldest breeds in the world and have lived wild for perhaps thousands of years. Yet, the species is known primarily as a domesticated species, and those running free are merely escapees. This perception of the horse as belonging in paddocks on farms and not roaming free is often what keeps people questioning if the mustang is a species worth protecting. Indigenous species, or rather those that have been roaming free across North America longer than the horse once it arrived again, are protected first even at the expense of the mustang.

For example, as recently as two months ago on September 2, the Las Vegas Review Journal reported that "Federal officials have approved a final management plan for the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Nevada that calls for the removal of all wild horses and burros from it within five years." This is because the reserve was created for pronghorn antelope and mustangs are thought to have a negative impact on the habitat, though horse advocacy groups say that the reverse is true, that horses and burros have lived in the area well before the refuge as created and help to minimize wildfires through their grazing. Currently, there are over 2,500 antelope in the refuge and nearly 1,000 horses.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Mustang stallions gather at a water trough.

Indeed, there are often times when wild horse populations are not only neutral in impact on other wildlife but serve to help other species. As AWHP notes, " Another positive effect of wild horses on biodiversity was documented in the case of the Coyote Canyon horses in the Anza Borrega National Park (California). After wild horses were all removed from the Park to increase big horn sheep population, bighorn sheep mortality actuality skyrocketed: mountain lions, wild horse predators, compensated the loss of one of their prey species by increasing their predation on other species."

Rebuilding Support for Mustangs
While the arguments against wild mustangs are loud and clear, also worthy of attention are the arguments for wild mustangs, but the voices behind the horses do not tend to be as loud as those behind freeing space for cattle. Even if one places indigenous species above mustangs, should not the mustangs be placed above domesticated and privately-owned cattle on the scheme of how public lands are used?

Not only is it not entirely (or at all) the fault of wild horses for degradation of public lands or impacts on other grazing species, but the existing protections put forward decades ago to keep mustangs as part of the west are, for the most part, ignored or countered to the point that the breed remains in decline.

"Despite the BLM's claims to the contrary, there are not too many wild horses and burros on public lands; there are too few. To put the issue in perspective, the BLM currently manages 245 million acres of land; wild horses and burros are currently managed on under 32 million of these acres -- a mere 13 percent of all BLM lands. Meanwhile wild horses and burros have been reduced to 1 percent of their population at the turn of the 20th century. While millions of cows and sheep graze on public lands, the BLM -- capitulating to the political pressure of the livestock industry -- set the upper population targets for wild horses and burros for FY 2009 at a paltry 23,663 and 2,915 respectively," reports Managing for Extinction.

Today, there are more mustangs in government holding facilities than there are in the wild, costing tax payers some $60 million a year. Everyone on both sides of the debate around mustangs agrees that the current methods used by the BLM to manage wild horses is expensive and ineffective.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

One of the biggest challenges for wild horses is having enough land to roam. A primary goal for Return to Freedom is to buy a plot of land large enough to be self-sufficient in both water and forage for rescued bands of mustangs.

In a document on feral horses (PDF), The Wildlife Society reports that, "The total cost of rounding up and maintaining feral horses has been rising rapidly, from $38.8 million in FY07 to $63.9 million in FY10... Costs are projected to increase in the coming years if the program does not change, especially as adoption rates are slowing. Given continuing feral horse population growth, looming federal deficits, budget reductions, and other priority needs for conservation, this program is likely unsustainable."

No one on any side of the debate is against utilizing management strategies. It is clear to everyone that letting wild horses roam without population control or outside of public lands would be a mistake. Yet there are smarter, more cost-effective, humane and sustainable strategies for managing wild herds put forward by wild horse advocacy groups.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Caring for the mustangs is a 24/7 job, including feeding twice a day as the sanctuary doesn't have enough free-growing grass, especially in fall and winter, to support the herds.

Sustainable Mustang Management

Return to Freedom works to establish and promote more sustainable herd management strategies. Not only is maintaining family bands and the natural behaviors of wild horses important to the sanctuary, but so too is providing a haven for unique strains of mustangs.

For instance, in a corral in the center of the ranch are two small bands, each consisting of a stallion and his mares. These two bands are from Sulpher Springs, in the Needle Mountain Range of Southwestern Utah, and their bloodlines are directly traced back to Spanish origin. Though blood testing was conducted, simply looking at them makes the connection clear -- they are sorrel, grullo or dun in coloring, and many have two-toned manes, black-tipped ears that curve slightly inward at the tips, zebra striping on their legs and a dorsal stripe running down their backs, all traits that go back to the ancient breed.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Return to Freedom specializes in rescuing unique strains of mustangs that have evolved in relative isolation over hundreds of years, such as this mare from the Sulphur Springs herd, one of the few strains able to claim direct Spanish Heritage.

Meanwhile, in a large pasture near the front of the property lives a small herd of Choctaw ponies, small horses that are as friendly as the family dog. Their markings are varied as varied as their conformations, though all are hardy and strong for their size. Once a driving force in the lives of the Choctaw Indians, there are fewer than 150 of these iconic ponies left after more than 12,000 were killed on the Trail of Tears and thousands more killed in a poorly devised tick eradication program.

These, and other unique strains have a safe haven at Return to Freedom, where they would otherwise face the prospect of being "zeroed out" or utterly eliminated from ranges, and from the face of the earth.

Return to Freedom offers a refuge for rescued mustangs but this is not its primary purpose. Beyond being a home, the sanctuary works to be a model for better management practices that it wants to see the BLM adopt, and that includes fertility control.

Fertility Control Strategies
With a shortage of natural predators in herd management areas, wild horse populations can double in as little as four years without intervention. A primary method for controlling herd sizes at the sanctuary is the use of non-hormonal birth control, a drug called PZP, that is administered to the mares. It is between 60-95% effective, is safe and reversible, and can dramatically reduce the population growth of wild horses.

The sanctuary uses this method at a cost of $300 per mare. To administer PZP, one only needs to get within shooting range and fire a dart gun. To the horse, the dart feels equivalent to a mosquito bite. Records are kept of each and every mare that is darted and the process happens annually. Because PZP is not 100% effective, there are foals born each year at the sanctuary, but the numbers are far, far fewer than would exist without their use. The positive results of PZP use here and at other wild horse sanctuaries can be extrapolated to the larger mustang population, and PZP does meet BLM standards for a fertility control drug.

The Humane Society of the United States economic model shows that should the BLM use PZP as a fertility control for wild horse populations, they could reach management goals with 12 years while saving tax payers $200 million by eventual reduction or even elimination of round-ups and reducing or eliminating mustangs kept in long- and short-term holding facilities.

Putting a real effort behind fertility control strategies would be more cost-effective for the BLM and tax payers who fund BLM's management of wild horses, and of course they would be less traumatic and invasive for wild horses themselves.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Population control measures are taken at the sanctuary, so only a handful of foals are born each year such as this handsome foal born into the Hart Mountain herd.

Finding Land and Money

Though mustangs do not necessarily have a significant impact on an ecosystem when small numbers range across many acres, the state of Return to Freedom's sanctuary also underscores the importance of providing that large amount of land to controlled numbers of mustangs in order to avoid negative consequences for the habitat. The demand for a safe place for mustangs stripped of their freedom is never-ending, and as DeMayo pointed out to me, the sanctuary was filled to capacity within the first year and has been over capacity ever since. But as a result, the pastures for the horses contain little if any plant life, especially now in the fall of a dry year.

As we walked over a dirt hillside terraced with horse trails, I asked Samantha, a representative with the sanctuary, if grass ever grows across the hills. She said no, and even in the spring only a little grass is able to grow on the north side of the hills for a short while. The problems this causes with erosion is not lost on the sanctuary's team, which is actively working with experts to find solutions. The issues from overgrazing illustrates that wide tracts of land are needed for mustangs. They cannot be expected to live on less and less land, as the current trajectory of BLM's management is forcing them to do.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

The cost of caring for the horses is one of the biggest challenges for the sanctuary. Roughly $40,000 a month is spent on hay alone for the 400 horses under the care of Return to Freedom.

With what little land the sanctuary has to house these horses, the team does its best with a water catchment system, a planned manure composting system, and plans for erosion control. But it is a constant, and losing, battle to keep the effects of many horses on a relatively small parcel of land from showing. Though mustangs can have a negligible impact on an ecosystem when roaming across millions of acres, the sanctuary with its deeply overgrazed hills exhibits the consequences of overpopulation of horses.

Sitting her office on the sanctuary, I asked Jessica Scheley, a coordinator with Return to Freedom, about how the ranch might deal with the shortage of space and thus the shortage of free-growing forage. With an earnest nod, she said, "Rotational grazing and holistic management would be a wonderful addition to the program here but at the moment with the size of the property in respect to the size of the herds it's pretty difficult to do that. It's actually not happening. There's too many horses to move...we don't have enough space to take horses off [land] for a certain amount of time."

A solution is moving some bands of horses to smaller paddocks for a few months to allow beardless barley grasses to grow high in their usual pastures. The bands are then re-released to enjoy a short period of plenty in their green paddocks.

Land Enough To Be Self-Sufficient
The bigger goal of Return to Freedom is the purchase of a tract of land large enough to be self-sufficient for protected herds, providing enough forage and water to sustain wild bands, with space left over for growing hay to supplement the feeding of older horses or those under special care; a place where populations are controlled humanely and round-ups are unnecessary. The team is currently fundraising and searching for the right patch of land.

"The hope is that once there's a larger reserve for them to go, once some of the horses leave here, we'll have a much better chance to develop a holistic management plan, reintroducing native grasses and rotational grazing methods," says Scheley.

For this 300-acre patch of land on the Central Coast of California, 30-70 horses is an ideal number to live here. The sanctuary is currently trying to house over 300 horses on this property and another 100 or so on a property in northern California -- and the demand for rescuing horses never stops. Because of the number of horses and the inability for this amount of land to support them, the sanctuary must do year-round supplemental feeding with hay, which is one of the biggest costs to the non-profit at an average of $40,000 per month.

Essentially, not only is Return to Freedom working to provide a model for more sustainable management of herds but it is also inadvertently highlighting the amount of support still needed to protect these animals. Fundraising is a constant struggle and it is money that holds the non-profit back from its larger goals for providing a safe, sustainable, self-sufficient habitat for more wild herds that will otherwise be rounded up by the BLM and put in tax-payer-funded holding pens or sent via an obscured route to slaughter.

© Rebecca Jackrel

A wild horse feeds along a ridgeline at sunset at Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary.

The Wild Horse As An Icon

Is the wild horse a native species? Is its multi-century status as a feral animal make it wild enough again to push for its conservation? Does it even matter if it is wild or feral or native when it is considered such an iconic part of the western US? And what of the deep connection we feel to horses as an inseparable part of our evolutionary history, with the equine as companion and fellow worker? Is the wild mustang a breed worth preserving, and do we in some way owe it to them to provide them with space to roam? These, and many more, are the questions conservationists must address in the push to protect wild horses. Despite the squabbling over "wild" versus "feral" or whether or not horses are competition for cattle on public lands, one thing is certain: a west without the mustang feels unimaginable to anyone who has read a history book.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

A benefit to the stallions on the sanctuary is they keep their mares far longer than they would in the wild. Chief, who is roughly 18 years old, likely would have lost his mares to a younger stallion long ago.

Mustangs As Ambassadors
Return to Freedom knows the attraction wild horses present to the general public is and makes hands-on education part of the strategy for gathering support behind mustang preservation. During educational tours, guests are able to visit Spirit, a Kiger mustang that was used as the model for Dreamworks film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron; and Diamonte, a Wilbur-Cruce Mission Horse, a descendent from those horses brought to the Americas by the Spaniards beginning in 1493 and lived in relative isolation, making it a rare and historically important breed. These handsome stallions help to spark and interest in those who meet them and the beginnings of a bond with mustangs may be formed. Guests can also watch bands of mustangs and witness their behaviors and interactions, connecting with the wild horse and learning about the plight of the mustang.

The steps taken by Return to Freedom to educate the public is an important part of advocating for the wild horse. As Velma Johnston, or Wild Horse Annie, proved in the 1950s with her campaign to create protections for mustangs, there is no force more powerful for creating change than the voice of the general public. It is perhaps up to the public again to decide if wild horses will remain part of the landscape of the west.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Mustangs are allowed to keep their wildness on the sanctuary. This stallion was taken out of the wild after a rancher complained of him stealing mares, and he put three cowhands in the hospital during his capture. Later adopted by Return to Freedom, he is allowed to live with little direct human contact, save what is needed for any medical attention and of course the admiring stares from visitors.

TreeHugger Presents: Return to Freedom - American Wild Horse Sanctuary from Rebecca Jackrel on Vimeo.

Tags: Animal Rights | Animals | Animal Welfare | Biology | Conservation | longreads


New to TreeHugger?