U.S. Government's Horrific Treatment of America's Wild Horses Isn't Just Inhumane—It's Against the Law

The interests of the nation's wild horses on taxpayer-supported public lands have been neglected in favor of profit-driven special interests.

A herd of horses in the mountains
Photo Credit: aleksandr hunt/Shutterstock

Earlier this month, the federal Bureau of Land Management decided to withdraw its plan to perform sterilization experiments on 225 wild mares, rather than face multiple lawsuits. On the heels of this victory came a shocking announcement: The BLM Advisory Board recommended killing approximately 45,000 wild horses now held captive in government corrals.

Public outrage and the outpouring of opposition were immediate and overwhelming. After just a few days, a BLM spokesperson stated the agency would continue its current practices and not euthanize the horses as recommended. (Being all too familiar with BLM’s double-talk, we must add the caveat “for now” to that statement.)

Perhaps as many as two million horses once roamed free in the United States. Their numbers were decimated, reduced to thousands, as they were brutally captured and slaughtered for various reasons. Following concerted nationwide campaigns, Congress unanimously passed the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, in 1971, declaring that wild horses should and would “be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death.” The BLM was placed in charge of managing herds on public lands.


Since then—contrary to its mandate to protect horses—the BLM continually favors special interests that want to exploit public lands, such as livestock, corporate ranching, oil and gas, mining and even big game hunting. These industries have lobbied against wild horses’ right to live their lives out on federal lands, even though the 1971 Act requires it.

If it had its way, the BLM—the department responsible for the protection and preservation of America’s wild horses—would instead drive these horses to extinction.

Thanks to the BLM’s annual roundups, close to 300,000 wild horses have been removed since the Wild Horse Act passed, and nearly 50,000 are now warehoused in poor government holding facilities.

So the BLM’s promise to maintain its current practices—for now—is insufficient, inhumane and unethical. The BLM's current practices include roundups, slaughter and maintaining selective breeding stocks to produce horses who are more profitable at BLM auctions. However, the BLM must hear this from the public, not just from animal advocacy groups. When we filed a lawsuit to tell the BLM its plan to conduct invasive experimental sterilization surgeries on wild mares was illegal and unacceptable, the agency walked it back. Surely it shouldn’t take the threat of federal court to develop more sustainable policies.

Instead of practices that violate the law and the national commitment to keep wild horses wild, there are reasonable and practical alternatives that are in the best interests of horses and the public too. We can reduce livestock numbers on public lands, place a moratorium on roundups while increasing use of proven fertility control like the PZP contraceptive vaccine to stop overloading long-term holding facilities, expand gentling programs to increase adoption rates, encourage or develop eco-tourism opportunities, and engage in more private-public partnerships to humanely and successfully manage the horses.

The interests of wild horses on taxpayer-supported public lands should be considered in tandem with, not less than, any other interests—particularly special interests that profit from the use of these lands.

The BLM Advisory Board accepts public comment at [email protected]. We encourage voters to contact their congressional representatives and ask for more responsible management of wild horses, both on their native rangelands and in confinement.

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Hilary Wood is the founder of Front Range Equine Rescue, a nonprofit working to prevent the abuse and neglect of horses.