Leasing Grazing Land For Wild Horses Is More Complex Than Initial Reports Indicate

Continually growing wild horse herds overpopulating and destroying or damaging rangelands controversy has again heightened.

A touchy subject for decades, wild horses have come into public awareness in recent days with wire service stories. Pitch of the writing is: “More pastures needed for West’s overpopulation of wild horses.”

Getting complete and accurate information about the real situation is almost impossible. It depends on the source, which one is doing the talking, and what is wanted to be public knowledge.

Blood boils on both sides of the issue.

“Do everything possible to take care of these unique, most beautiful animals of our Western heritage,” proponents demand.

“Get rid of ’em, preserve destruction of our rangeland and save literally millions of taxpayer dollars,” opponents declare.

During the 1950s, Velma Johnston, known as Wild Horse Annie, recognized the indiscriminate manner wild horses were treated on rangelands.  So-called “mustangers” played a major role in harvesting wild horses for commercial purposes during this time.

Wild Horse Annie led a grassroots campaign, famously involving many school children.  As noted by the Associated Press on July 15, 1959: “Seldom has an issue touched such a responsive chord.”

By 1971, wild horse populations on public lands had declined significantly because of the encroachment of man and the mustangers.

In response to public outcry, Congress unanimously passed the “Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.” It provides for the necessary management, protection and control of wild horses and burros on public lands.  

Herds of wild horses roam more than 60,000 acres in the Flint Hills of Kansas. Ranchers contract with the Bureau of Land Management to graze the wild horses on privately owned pastures.

President Richard Nixon signed the bill into law on December 15, 1971.  The Act has been amended by Congress on four different occasions.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was tasked by Congress with protecting, managing, and controlling free-roaming horses and burros.

That was under the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act “to ensure that healthy herds thrive on healthy rangelands.”

Difficulty arises because mustang herd sizes can multiply rapidly, increasing up to and possibly by 20 percent every year.

Population control presents a challenge. When unmanaged, numbers can outstrip forage available, leading to starvation.

Wild horses and burros are defined by federal law as unbranded, unclaimed, free-roaming horses or burros found on public lands.  Most wild horses and burros are descendants of animals released or escaped from Spanish explorers, ranchers, Cavalry and Native Americans.

BLM wild horse and burro 2018 inventory report showed: population, 81,951; removed, 11,472; in private care, 4,609; and trained, 1,479. Fertility control treatments were administered on 702.

The most alarming number: “total expenditures, $81.226 million.”

The BLM manages wild horses and burros in 177 herd management areas (HMA) across 10 western states.  

Each HMA is unique in its terrain features, local climate and natural resources, just as each herd is unique in its history, genetic heritage, coloring and size distribution.

In order to prevent horses being sold to slaughter, the BLM has implemented policies limiting sales and requiring buyers to certify they will not take the horses to slaughter.

In 2017, the Trump administration began pushing Congress to remove barriers to implementing both the option to euthanize and sell excess horses.

GRAND JUNCTION, CO – AUGUST 28: A pair of wild horses graze on the peak of hill at Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range on August 28, 2018 in Grand Junction, Colorado. Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range encompasses 36,000 acres and is currently inhabited by 190 wild horses. The Bureau of Land Management is currently trapping wild horses to bring the numbers down to what it believes is a manageable number. (Photo by Seth McConnell/Special to the Colorado Sun)

More than 10,000 foals were said to be born on range in 2018. Despite mustang adoption days conducted around the country each year, only about 2,500 horses are adopted annually.

 The Extreme Mustang Makeover program gives horsemen mustangs to train and sell to increase adoptions. Certain prisons have programs for inmates to train wild horses and make them available for adoption. Still, adoption numbers do not come close to finding homes for the excess horses.

The Bureau of Land Management announced that it was seeking bids from private land owners for new public off-range pastures. They had to be in Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma or Wyoming to provide a free-roaming environment for wild horses.

“An off-range pasture is where the horses are allowed to freely graze. They move about like they would in the wild, only not on public lands,” said Scott Fleur, BLM wild horse specialist.

The BLM began paying landowners to run and care for the federally protected animals’ off-range and privately in the mid-1980s.

While exact numbers are outdated, wild horses are prominently grazing Kansas pasture land. The last reported count is that more than 7,000 horses now run free over 60,000 acres in the state. They are mares and geldings, but no stallions, so the herd populations remain the same.

“Kansas was selected due to productivity of the grassland,” said Pat Williams, BLM long-term holding facility manager. “The problem was finding ranches large enough to accommodate the number of horses.”

More than two-thirds of the 37 existing off-range pastures are actually in Oklahoma and Kansas, the BLM indicated.

In the most recent wild horse grazing land request, BLM said participants in the private-pasture system must meet definite requirements.

“It’s not like you can do this in your backyard, or even a five-acre plot,” said Debbie Collins, BLM outreach specialist in Norman, Oklahoma.

Fenced pasture must be enough to sustain anywhere from 200 to 5,000 horses. There must be continuous water, basic trees or a canyon shelter, supplemental forage, and corrals for loading and unloading from trailers.

Still, there’s no shortage of interest in the off-range pasture program. People call all the time asking for details, Collins said.

How many new off-range pastures are established through the latest bid solicitation, the first of its kind since 2016, will depend on costs and how many existing ones get renewed, Collins said.