KBR Wild Horse and Burro News Editorial
Dateline February 22, 2000

Some Perspective regarding the
BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program

Willis Lamm

Sulphur Horses on the Range
The events of 1999 and early 2000 have given us many reasons to reflect on the Wild Horse and Burro Program as well as the future of wild horses and burros in the United States. There are a number of misunderstood issues involving wild horse and burro management. This document is intended to offer some perspective and better understanding of the rather complex issues surrounding these wonderful creatures.


My wife and I spend between 20 and 30 hours a week on wild horse and burro issues and on the animals themselves. While our focus is on wild horses and burros, we consider it very important that we take the perspective of ecologists rather than solely as wild horse and burro advocates. While we certainly consider the horses to be valuable and important, what matters most is maintaining healthy rangelands. If the rangelands remain healthy, the horses and all the other plants and animals that live with them will most likely flourish.

Kiger Mustangs at Burns, Oregon

Photo by Lisa Dines

Living on the range as we do, we understand that maintaining a healthy range is a balancing act. Few, if any ranges are as God or Mother Nature designed them to be. Man has introduced new plants and animals, and has killed off other plants and animals to the point that the ranges that exist today are a reflection of our presence, either past or present. Wild horses and burros are two components reintroduced by man, free for the most part of natural population controls such as cougars and wolves and, exceptionally capable of reproducing themselves to greater numbers. They present delicate issues with respect to how to maintain their presence in the western landscape yet still preserve harmonious balance with native plants and animals and other permitted activities on our public lands.

Fifty years ago horse and burro populations were kept in check by hunters and mustangers. Today many wild horses and burros are protected by the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act. But while the Act prevents protected animals from harassment, being shot and being captured and sold to the packers and rendering plants, it also recognizes the essential need for horses and burros to be managed in keeping with the overall needs of the lands where they range.


While the Act does not protect all wild horses and burros, it does provide legal protection for wild horses and burros on lands managed by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). It requires the herds to be managed in a way that maintains balance with the multiple uses of public lands. These uses include the needs of native animals, especially endangered species, as well as other legal users of the land such as livestock ranchers.

Photo courtesy of BLM
The Act provides for populations to be controlled via gathering and adoption of excess animals, through scientific means (such as immunocontraception) and euthanasia (otherwise referred to as the "Sunset Option".)

Congress appropriates specific funds for the BLM to manage the Wild Horse and Burro Program and BLM is expected to operate within its financial means.


Most competitors of wild horses and burros are other wildlife, however in areas where grazing leases exist, livestock also compete for resources on the range. This relationship is not as acrimonious as it is sometimes portrayed, but it has its stresses and strains.

For example, ranchers are often required to make range improvements such as preserving riparian areas, developing refuge areas for endangered native animals, and making other habitat improvements. Overpopulated horse herds have been documented destroying these improvements in their search of food and water. Thus the ranchers are faced with being responsible to BLM for repairing damage that BLM's animals, not their cattle, have caused.

Wild Horse Fact
A horse requires more feed than a cow & calf combined.
Pryor Mountain Mustangs

Photo by Hardy Oelke

Some folks will argue that repairing horse damage is part of the cost of doing business when leasing public rangelands. However the horses don't have any concept of boundary lines and during migrations or when overpopulated, they wander onto private property; some of this property being owned or leased by the same ranching interests that have to deal with the horses in areas leased from BLM. Therefore to preserve the relative freedom of a naturally wandering animal, the BLM has to try to seek the middle ground and maintain reasonable cooperation with ranchers regarding wild horse needs within BLM lands as well as adjacent private properties where the horses roam.

One tactic used by some wild horse and burro groups is to attack the subsidized nature of Federal range grazing leases. Arguments against current grazing fees and the need to charge market value for grazing are constantly being presented. Folks on the other side of the argument will point out BLM is letting wild horse and burro enthusiasts purchase animals for as little as $125.00. These are animals that in some cases cost thousands to manage, gather, process and bring to adoption. So the subsidy issue isn't as clear-cut as it may seem.


Over the years there has been significant controversy regarding the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and its Wild Horse and Burro Program. However, to put everything into proper context one must realize that the BLM does more for wild horses and burros than any other organization in the world, possibly more than virtually all the other organizations in the world combined. This is a daunting task involving tens of thousands of horses spread over tens of millions of acres throughout the western United States.

In any operation of this size and complexity there are going to be decisions people like and dislike. There are literally thousands of issues and interests which impact BLM's implementation of its programs and there is no possible way that BLM would ever please everyone.

Wild Horse Fact
The BLM manages over 45,000 horses and burros.
Wild horses being gathered

Photo courtesy of BLM

Picture yourself in a an emotionally charged room full of people screaming, "Do more!" and "You're doing too much!" all at the same time. The bottom line is when BLM tries to take a reasonable middle ground position, a vast majority of the interest groups walk away upset that the BLM didn't provide more of what they wanted when perhaps they should take stock of the big picture and be more appreciative of what BLM is accomplishing.

The grim reality is that there are people in Congress and elsewhere that are growing increasingly annoyed with wild horse and burro groups that can never seem to agree, that demand expensive solutions without consideration of where the money is coming from and that continually bash the agency that is trying to get the work done. More and more I'm hearing statements such as "Why are we spending this kind of money on these horses?" and "We're investing millions so that a few hundred horse enthusiasts can get cheap horses."

(Of course the answer isn't that simple, either. Please see Wild Horse & Burro Economics.)

There are increasing demands that the BLM get a better handle on its program costs. While many of us have successfully fought back some potentially horrendous cuts to the Wild Horse and Burro Program, Congress and influential fiscal conservatives are growing tired of an expensive program which in their eyes doesn't do much for the country in general, and which appears to them to be for a bunch of bickering people that can't even agree as to whether or not the program is any good.

BLM oftentimes has to make some hard decisions, some where economic sense prevails over what we would prefer from the standpoint of benefitting a particular group of horses. Yet unless someone is prepared to come up with an endless supply of money, unpopular decisions will have to be made. So the issues we fight over shouldn't be whether BLM should do something that it can't possibly do due to impositions and constraints, but rather how we should cooperate, coordinate mitigation efforts and making the best of the cards that are being dealt by the people in Congress that control the funding.


One of the more emotional and brainless accusations we see hurled at BLM when they make an unpopular decision is that BLM is being cruel to the animals. These kinds of statements usually come from people or groups that are upset because BLM couldn't or wouldn't bow to their demands, and are often made by people who think all wild horses and burros should run wild and free without any interference by man, don't really understand the complete issues surrounding BLM's decisions, and/or haven't a clue as to what cruelty really is.

Horses exiting a BLM transport

Wild Horse Workshop '98

Cruelty is yielding to the romantic notion that the horses should be allowed to roam free, unimpeded by man, to multiply at a rate of 17% or more until they stretch the limits of their environment. Then, and especially if weather conditions are unfavorable, they should slowly die in a frantic and desperate search for food and water, wiping out fragile plant communities, usually causing game and innocent native animals to suffer and die with them, and sometimes causing such environmental damage that it takes years for more fragile ranges to recover. What you often have in areas when the herds are not appropriately managed is not a humane approach to wildlife management, but simply "horse pollution."

Gathering horses off the range is not a perfect science. Some horses get hurt. A few even die. However when left completely alone horses get hurt and die on the range, in some cases at a much higher rate than those few accidents that occur out of many thousands of horses gathered. Injury and mortality are part of the picture no matter where or how the horses are either managed or left alone. When one views the larger picture, overall horse mortality is much less and the horses' quality of life is much better when the herds are appropriately managed, and the current state of the art in herd management involves the gathering of excess horses.

What constitutes cruelty is allowing horses to overpopulate, destroy the environment, destroy other plants and animals, then slowly starve to death. While we definitely would like to see improvements in areas of horse population control, and while we constantly fight for improved management techniques, safer gathers, more competent adopters and better program oversight, the worst possible option is to do nothing when the herds approach their practical upper population limits.

What we're really dealing with when debating BLM policies and procedures is arguing the varied perspectives and opinions as to what are the best approaches to wild horse and burro management. Good ideas will be more likely heard, considered and implemented when they are not attached to accusations that if BLM doesn't agree, then it is an agency that is engaged in animal cruelty. Furthermore, Congress is more likely to fund some of the more reasonable ideas if the wild horse and burro groups can solidly unite behind the concepts that really make some sense.

Also please remember that anyone can dream up a name for a wild horse group and throw up a web page. Some folks are careful about verifying their facts before presenting them, but we've seen a lot of very sensational claims made by others that never checked out. Some folks are sincere but misinformed or act on rumors. Others will say anything to get you to send them donations. If an individual or group presents what appears to be hysterical or exaggerated claims, contact us and we'll check the situation out through our contacts in the veteran mainstream WHB organizations.


Our primary concern should be the safety of all wild horses and burros. Public safety agencies have known for years that when the communities that they serve have limited financial resources to throw at such services as police, fire protection and emergency medical response, they have to set some priorities. They determine a level of acceptable risk and focus most of their resources on ensuring that they can provide the most needed services to their citizens. The wild horse and burro groups need to adopt the same logic. We must establish what are reasonable acceptable risks and focus most of our energy toward the animals that are at greater risk than is acceptable.

Wild Horse Fact
About 169,000 animals have been adopted by citizens.
Debbie playing with her handler

Lamm's Kickin' Back Ranch

These comments are not intended to be admonishments of the various wild horse and burro advocacy groups. I'm also not suggesting that we not address issues of less than critical concern. Through reasonable efforts we may cause improvements to occur in many needed areas. But we need to focus the bulk of our efforts and energy in areas where wild horses and burros are at the greatest risk.

Critical issues that come to mind include:

  • Safeguarding unprotected horses on Federal lands (non BLM horses)

  • Safeguarding unprotected horses on state lands

  • Reducing the number of "bad" adoptions

  • Adopter education (aimed at reducing transitional stress in adopted horses)

  • Sufficient funding to fund good herd management practices

  • Improved political support for the Wild Horse and Burro Program.
Here's an example of comparing risks and establishing priorities.

Depending on many factors, spring gathers of wild horses can potentially cause increased risks to the animals gathered as compared with the hazards found in their natural environment. While gathering is an activity that has inherent risks, current statistics don't show proper gathers to pose much greater risk than the environment itself. A number of wild horse groups invest significant time and effort fighting with the BLM over the timing and methods of gathers to ensure the safety of the horses.

Yet at the same time, wild horses and burros gathered by the National Park Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service often end up at the meat packers. In past years those horses held by the State of Nevada had 60 days to find homes or get dumped at the sale barn where they were sold by the pound, usually bid on by the killers. In comparing these situations, horses under NPS, FWS, state and local jurisdictions are at much greater risk than the BLM horses. While we would certainly want to maintain our position regarding reducing the risks of spring BLM gathers, we have to set priorities on how we commit our time and efforts. If we can't do both, then putting our greatest emphasis toward protecting the unprotected Nevada horses we would produce the greatest number of "saves."

I would add a third issue to this analysis that involves what happens to the horses and burros after they are adopted and taken home. While most of these animals become healthy and reasonably content members of the domestic world, some will undoubtedly be mishandled or placed in unsafe enclosures and as a result, they sometimes suffer serious or fatal injuries. These losses are both predictable and preventable and will continue to occur until the causes are adequately addressed.
Adopters & mentors gentling horses
Wild Horse Workshop '99

"Zero adoption failures" is not a realistic concept, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't strive toward such a goal, and in doing so establish levels of acceptable risk based on the same chances of injury and mortality as if the horses remained in the wild. If we did that, doesn't it then make sense to invest time volunteering to assist with compliance inspections and in adopter education so that this level of acceptable risk can be maintained?


We can't do it all, so we have to focus our limited resources on what we can do that makes the most difference or that reduces significant risks to the greatest numbers of animals. This doesn't mean we ignore the other issues nor should we stop those activities that we enjoy. What it does mean is that when we gather all of our resources to aggressively pursue an issue, we simply shouldn't sacrifice the many by getting caught up trying to benefit the few.

Photo by Pam Fournier

Furthermore if efforts can be made to constructively engage other agencies and organizations and we spend our time working cooperatively rather than in conflict, we will have more time and resources left to invest in wild horses and burros, which after all is our stated mission, and we should see measurable improvements in the results that we obtain.

Whether we succeed or fail is up to us. In the end there really is no one else to credit or blame.

Willis Lamm

This is not a BLM operated or BLM sponsored site. It is run by private wild horse and burro enthusiasts and owners.

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