Wild horses grazing the Flint Hills of Kansas are certainly a site to behold.
While there have been numerous stories, both pro and con, concerning the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Program, no one can deny it is breathtaking as hundreds of horses come thundering across the prairie, nostrils flared and snorting, manes and tails flying in the wind.
It is one of the most iconic living images of the Old West again relived, as the wild horses are said to have descended from horses brought to the Americas by the Spanish more than six centuries ago.
By the 19th century, the horses are claimed to have been just as much a part of Kansas’ wildlife as buffalo, deer and antelope. But, with American settlement, horses disappeared, along with some other wildlife.
A century later, the horses had been pushed West and ran wild on federally controlled lands in 10 states, which became heavily overpopulated.
In the 1970s, the Bureau of Land Management was charged with preserving the animal, many feared was at risk of disappearing, and the government’s Wild Horse Program evolved.
Then, Flint Hills ranchers began contracting with the Bureau of Land Management to transport the horses back to Kansas. So, wild horses again graze with vague similarity, as they are said to have a century-and-a-half ago.
“A lot of people are surprised to learn that there are many thousands of wild horses in Kansas,” said Paul McGuire of the Bureau of Land Management.
Logically, it’s partially due to productivity of the grassland, and sufficient acreage to accommodate the numbers.
“The East doesn’t have these ranches,” another spokesperson explained. “In the West, a lot of the ranches lease public land, while in Texas carrying capacity isn’t as high. That leaves the Midwest, and the reason wild horses are again grazing Kansas’ Flint Hills.”
Although exact counts vary, according to the source, most agree that nearly 10,000 wild horses call Kansas home, occupying about 77,000 acres.
In big Flint Hills pastures south of Cassoday, all one can see for miles and miles is horses and more horses.
There are said to be only mares and geldings, but no stallions. So, the herd population should remain the same, but certain sources claim numbers continue upward.
Blame for this is often put on those who can’t afford to keep a horse, and decide it is most humane to turn it out in the wild. Intact males could feasibly among those. That is completely controversial, as well, and another story within itself.
Appreciating the concerns about the Wild Horse Program, McGuire emphasized, “The BLM has to manage the interests and concerns and values of 300 million Americans, and that’s a very daunting task.”
Also unnerving is the program’s cost, billed to the American taxpayer.
The Wild Horse and Burro Program is said to cost about $75 million. Some goes to horse adoption programs, research and range monitoring, but ranchers are also paid to provide the land and food for these transplanted horses to live.
Sources have said they’re paid about $1.30 per horse, per day. One Kansas ranch is estimated to have 4,400 wild horses, which would be a check of more than $2 million annually.
“So, it is a pretty expensive proposition. Keeping horses in holding is not ideal. The best situation is to find homes for animals that are removed from range. Beyond that, it would be desirable to get range populations in balance with numbers that can be adopted,” said McGuire.
The BLM has contended it is always trying to improve its wild horse program, and no one can deny the incredible cost.
Seeking to address the concerns of animal welfare advocates, the Bureau of Land Management last week announced changes that officials claim would strengthen the humane treatment of animals and increase public transparency of management.
“These changes are part of our ongoing commitment to ensure the humane treatment of animals that are gathered from our public rangelands,” said BLM official Mike Pool. “
New guidelines build upon policy announced earlier aimed at preventing wild horses and burros from being sold or sent to slaughter. No more than four wild horses and/or wild burros may be bought by an individual or group within a six-month period without prior BLM approval.
“The wild horse is more representative of who we are supposed to be, and how we are seen in the world as Americans,” Jim Gray, a sixth-generation Kansas rancher at Ellsworth, has said.
“That sense of freedom, that wild spirit of adventure is what symbolizes the wild horse,” Gray emphasized. “It is everything we as Americans are supposed to be; that ability to take on everything that comes at you and survive, and survive with style. That’s what the wild horse has done for centuries.”