Are There Really Wild Horses in America?

I recently received an email from a woman who asked me if I’d be willing to help her try and protect some wild horses living along the lower Salt River in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest.

She was worried about a rancher who was trying to obtain a grazing permit from the Forest Service to graze cattle in the area. I have a reputation of activism for trying to stop the ecological damage caused by livestock grazing on our public lands. So I presume she contacted me because she believed this would also make me sympathetic towards protecting horses.

I didn’t respond to her immediately because I consider wild horses to be feral animals, descended from the domestic ones brought to this continent by Europeans, starting with the Spanish Conquistadors. Yes, I know that horses originated in America millions of years ago, but the last American horse species went extinct thousands of years ago. There’s an ongoing scientific debate about why they went extinct. The most popular theories are climate change and overhunting by humans. But the bottom line is they were gone from the American landscape for thousands of years and the native vegetation and wildlife species adapted to their absence. It’s undeniable that their reintroduction has created negative ecological impacts in some places, including along the lower Salt River.

ground denuded by horses
Ground denuded by horses near lower Salt River, Tonto National Forest, May 2021. (Jeff Burgess)

The feral burros that roam Arizona’s Sonoran desert are also a problem. Their numbers are continuing to grow in the Santa Maria River drainage in the western part of the state, and they are inflicting significant damage upon local desert riparian areas.

The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, as amended, gives these equines protection. Its preamble says, “Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” This sounds like sentimental nonsense to me, but I know that many Americans want to see wild horses and burros on our public lands.

Federal Agencies Don’t Have Enough Resources to Manage Wild Horses and Burros

But this law also included provisions for managing their numbers. Local management areas were designated wherein existing wild horse and burro populations would be protected, while their populations would be controlled to prevent damage to the land. Unfortunately, however, the federal agencies that manage these public lands, the BLM and Forest Service, haven’t always been given the funding necessary to do this job. Furthermore, when the agencies have tried to reduce herd sizes they’ve met resistance from animal lovers. In response to this, the BLM began its Adopt-a-Wild Horse or Burro program in 1973, and has successfully adopted out more than 207,000 animals. But the number of excess wild horses and burros rounded up from the range is far greater than the number adopted. Tens of thousands are fed and cared for by the government in short term corrals and long-term holding pastures, costing tens of millions of dollars annually.

The agencies are experimenting with administering contraceptives to free-roaming animals to avoid having to round them up because there are obviously more important things that could be done with this money. If that doesn’t work, however, I think the best solution is to allow the agencies to sell off the excess animals.

Some horse lovers claim that wild horses are really a reintroduced native wildlife species because they are genetically similar to the last prehistoric wild horses in America, and the only reason they went extinct was because of human hunters. They might be right. But wild horses and burros can still crowd out other wildlife and damage arid ecosystems if their numbers aren’t controlled. Why is overgrazing on public lands only a concern when cattle are doing it?

So, I’ve decided tell the woman who contacted me that I’m willing to try and help her as long as she’s willing to admit we need to control wild horse and burro numbers in a cost-effective manner. And I agree to quit calling them feral animals.

Updates

On May 11, 2016, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed HB2340 into law, establishing state ownership of the growing lower Salt River horse herd. It made it crime to chase, harass, capture or slaughter any of these horses, and ordered the Arizona Department of Agriculture to enter into an agreement with the Tonto National Forest to manage the herd.

On December 27, 2017, the Arizona Department of Agriculture and the Tonto National Forest signed an agreement to manage the herd. The University of Arizona was subsequently commissioned to complete a forage utilization analysis of the approximately 11,000-acre Salt River horse herd zone in order to estimate a sustainable herd size.

On May 29, 2018, the non-profit Salt River Wild Horse Management Group announced they had entered a contract with the Arizona Department of Agriculture to help manage the lower Salt River horse herd on the Tonto National Forest. They are planning to give the horses birth control drugs.

On September 4, 2018, the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources & the Environment released their forage assessment report completed along the lower Salt River which showed, as was expected, that the size of the horse herd needs to be significantly reduced.

On December 13, 2018, the periodical High Country News published a story about the management of the lower Salt River horse herd.

On July 27, 2019, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a 60 day notice of intent to sue the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest for failing to protect endangered species habitat from large ungulates – including feral horses.

On October 1, 2019, the Arizona Republic reported that the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group still hadn’t implemented a management plan for the herd, and the situation was getting worse.

On January 18, 2020, it was reported that the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest’s Black Mesa Ranger District had discovered fifteen wild horses dead on Jan. 9 and 14, most from from gunshot wounds.

On January 25, 2020, the The Salt River Wild Horses Management Group held its 5th annual Ride for the Salt River Wild Horses, and about 1,000 motorcyclists participated.

On February 14, 2020, the Arizona Republic newspaper published an editorial calling for the culling of the wild horse herd living along the lower Salt River.

In May 2020 the BLM reported to Congress that it will take two decades and cost more than $1 billion over the first six years alone to slash wild horse populations to sustainable levels necessary to protect U.S. rangeland.

On August 11, 2020, the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest’s Black Mesa Ranger District issued a decision notice for the Heber Grazing Allotment, where a wild horse herd is found, to significantly increase the intensity of cattle grazing in the area by building new range improvements.

On March 23, 2021, the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests released a proposal to reduce the size of the horse herd in the Heber Wild Horse Territory.

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