The Biden administration was supposed to have been a reprieve from the Trump years, but for conservationists who want the wild horses of the American West to live long and prosper, this didn’t happen. The anti-horse policies formulated under Donald Trump have been dutifully carried out by his liberal successor.
“We feel betrayed, because we thought this was an administration that really believed in wildlife protections,” Manda Kalimian, president of the wild horse and environmental advocacy group Cana Foundation, told me recently. “For all the hope we placed in Biden, it turns out he’s almost worse than Trump when it comes to wild horses.”
The protections for horses are enshrined in federal law. The 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act mandated that the animals “are to be considered … as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands,” and as such, they “shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death.”
Under Trump in 2018, the Department of the Interior adopted a bold new program for the management of horses that exploited loopholes in the 1971 law. The program, Path Forward, was the brainchild of Republican Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah, a longtime friend of public land livestock grazers who consider horses to be their cows’ competitors on western rangelands.
Path Forward was a wholesale gift to the livestock industry. It directed the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, to expand roundups on federal herd management areas where the animals were alleged to have overpopulated. The benefit to livestock interests was obvious: Cows also use these same management areas, and the fewer horses in them, the better for stock-growers dependent on public forage to fatten their herds.
With Path Forward, the BLM began holding horses in “off-range” facilities in larger numbers than ever before, exposing the animals to rampant disease and extremes of cold and heat. It offered $1,000 a horse to would-be adopters, a much-ballyhooed “adoption incentive.” The agency promised that once the number of horses on the open range had been sufficiently reduced, it would begin widespread fertility control through darting of mares with contraceptives.
By 2020, Congress had fully funded Path Forward, and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, whom Joe Biden celebrated as the first Native American to hold the post, did not hesitate to implement it. Haaland’s BLM has overseen the largest increase in roundups of wild horses on record. It should be remarked as one of the minor ironies of history that a woman whose appointment was supposed to represent a break from the past has ended up perpetuating a violent and cruel status quo.
“Path to Destruction”
Occasional horse roundups, conducted humanely, are not out of keeping with the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. The legislation stated that when the animals exceed the carrying capacity of management areas, the federal government should step in to regulate their numbers.
The problem is that the BLM has no scientific understanding of the carrying capacity of western rangelands where horses and burros roam free. This was the conclusion of a National Academy of Sciences report in 2013. The NAS investigators found that the BLM had failed to use “scientifically rigorous methods to estimate the population sizes of horses and burros,” failed “to model the effects of management actions on the animals,” and, pivotally, failed “to assess the … use of forage on rangelands.”
When I reported on wild horse controversies for my book on the fate of federal public lands under capitalism, I found that carrying capacity for these persecuted animals was mostly determined by the needs of cattle corporations. In every herd management area, there are cows, and they outnumber horses by orders of magnitude. Allotted the majority of the forage, the cattle do well, and the horses are left to survive on what pittance remains.
The BLM captured and placed in holding facilities some 21,000 horses and burros in 2022.
From the moment the 1971 legislation to protect horses and burros passed, the number of herd management areas, along with the total acreage included in them, has been continually declining. Horses today don’t enjoy full access to the meager acreage federal regulators designate for their survival. Livestock operators dominate even those parcels, while fences bar the horses from moving freely across the landscape. Maltreatment of horses is only one facet of a long historical process in which the BLM has treated wildlife with barely disguised contempt.
None of this appeared to be a consideration when, in 2022, the BLM decided to capture and place in holding facilities some 21,000 horses and burros, nearly twice the number of the last highest capture year, 2012. More horses and burros were rounded up and sent to holding between 2018 and 2022 — a total of 55,000 — than in any four-year period since passage of the 1971 act.
“It’s been year after year of pain and suffering,” Kalimian told me. “So much for the federal law that’s supposed to protect our horses.”
What we’re witnessing today with Path Forward, she said, is “a path to destruction.”
Secretive Holding Facilities
One of the necessary components of the new program is that the BLM had to massively expand its contracts with private holding facilities to accommodate the rise in the number of animals removed from the range. These operators have the option to bar public access and oversight, a sea change from public processing corrals that are open to visitation.
It’s smart PR to hide behind closed doors because capture and transfer into holding can be mortal events for the animals. Take, for example, the 804 burros rounded up in the summer of 2022 in Nevada’s Blue Wing Complex, 60 miles northwest of Reno. Ten died immediately. After the BLM shipped the remaining burros into private holding, 45 more died from “capture stress,” according to records obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. The BLM will not allow the public to see those burros and check on their conditions in captivity.
Laura Leigh, executive director of Wild Horse Education in Reno, has been fighting the BLM’s wild horse policies for close to two decades. Path Forward, she told me, is only the latest iteration of the agency’s longtime effort to undermine the survival of wild horse herds so that profiteering interests, primarily stock growers and mining companies, are free to seize resources on public lands.
“The smoke-and-mirrors science from the BLM is all to protect cattle grazing.”
The Blue Wing roundup was so badly planned that Leigh joined with Kalimian’s Cana Foundation to file suit in federal court decrying “the antiquated and unscientific” environmental assessment the BLM used to justify the operation. The suit accused the BLM of lacking any long-term management plans for horses and burros in the Blue Wing Complex. “The smoke-and-mirrors science from the BLM is all to protect cattle grazing,” Kalimian told me.
Capture stress can trigger immune system failure, according to Leigh. Horses thrive in family groups, and when those groups are shattered — as they are in every roundup — this causes psychological distress that can lead to physical compromise. Being moved to a pen is a trigger as well. The BLM claims death rates from roundups are around 1 percent, but the true cost, Leigh says, is much higher: Some 12 percent of horses and burros die within six months of capture, according to her team’s research. That’s an estimated 6,000 deaths between 2018 and 2022. Many have perished of disease, though exact numbers are unknown. Equine influenza and streptococcus, ringworm, pigeon fever, papillomavirus, and salmonella have swept through the populations in holding.
Filth and inadequate sanitation are now the norm with the huge influx of animals. The BLM and its private contractors use the same capture alleys and pens repeatedly, without sufficient cleaning, and do not maintain expert staff who can handle sound sanitary practices, according to horse advocates who have investigated holding facilities. A typical boarding barn has a quarantine process for new arrivals; advocates charge that the BLM process, by contrast, allows disease to run rife.
“The BLM is committed to the health, welfare, and safety of all wild horses and burros, including those in BLM and contractor operated off-range facilities,” a spokesperson said in response to questions about the bureau’s sanitation practices. “Assessments are conducted to determine compliance or identify any corrective actions necessary to ensure proper care is provided.”
Unknowing citizens sometimes stumble on these holding sites and are horrified. Such was the experience of Vicki Cameron, a barber in Wheatland, Wyoming, in the state’s eastern high plains. Ten miles outside Wheatland, the BLM contracted with a company called Zimmetal and Welding LLC to operate a for-profit holding facility, the Wheatland Off-Range Corral. The BLM reports that approximately 2,850 animals from multiple states are now in captivity at Wheatland.
“I’m just an ordinary person driving along one day and saw these corrals full of horses,” Cameron said of her discovery of the Wheatland site in December. “This winter has been brutal, with extreme cold, snow, and wind. The corrals are on an open space with no shelter or break from the wind.”
Wheatland is closed to the public, but Cameron has been spying on its operations from nearby hilltops with binoculars. She told me that horses stand in eight inches of manure and muck in midwinter thaw events. Then the temperature drops abruptly, the wind kicks up, and the wind chill plummets to 60 below. “No human could withstand this weather,” Cameron said.
A Gold Mining Rush
Meanwhile, Path Forward’s vaunted adoption incentive program has gone off the rails. Multiple reputable organizations report that kill-buyers are posing as adopters, pocketing the $1,000 in taxpayer subsidy. The kill-buyers then sell horses and burros into a profitable slaughter pipeline in Mexico and Canada, at the end of which the animals are turned into canned meat for dogs. The BLM has noted that while adopters must pledge not to resell the horses to slaughterhouses, the bureau has no authority to enforce those agreements.
And fertility control has devolved into a second-rate initiative that has only involved a small number of horses, roughly 6 percent of the more than 20,000 captured off the range in 2022 — and an even smaller percentage of those horses allowed to remain on the range. Worse, the BLM has embraced invasive and often dangerous treatments to prevent horses from breeding. The agency, for example, has now proposed using lasers to burn mare’s oviducts, a painful process that causes tubal scarring to prevent conception but comes with serious risk of complications and death.
“Fertility control has turned into a vehicle for just more funding for roundups without regard for the real welfare of the animals,” Leigh said.
This broken system of management has its origin in the BLM’s policy of ever-widening fragmentation of horse habitat. Cattle-growing operations and industrial development on public lands are given priority. Especially worrisome is the breakneck growth in mining on the parcels of public domain reserved for horses, development that has produced more roads and more fences. Mining companies secure water rights on these arid landscapes to supply water-intensive hard-rock exploration, lowering the water table and drying up springs and seeps that horses depend on.
Leigh used to camp in one of the management areas in central Nevada, called the Pancake Complex, where the BLM has fast-tracked the construction of two new gold mines and condemned horse herds to make way for the mining concerns. In a 30-day period in early 2022, the BLM rounded up more than 2,000 horses in the Pancake Complex.
During her most recent visit last autumn, Leigh found new roads on previously unroaded landscapes. There was industrial-scale traffic and the constant noise of machines where previously the Pancake was a place of immense silence. Gone were not only the horses, but also the badger and pronghorn antelope she used to see and the sage grouse that came out at dusk to meet her.
So it goes. The last wild places of the American West are subjugated to money-making interests, and the last inhabitants of those marvelous landscapes are pushed aside.
In her constant and seemingly fruitless rebukes of the BLM for its failure to uphold the 1971 law, Leigh has asked the obvious question: Do we actually care about wild horses? Or are we just pretending to protect the ecosystems where these animals live? If the mandate of the BLM is truly to protect wild horses and burros, as the 1971 legislation tells us it is, the only way to make the program sound is to address the long-ignored issue of habitat preservation — a prospect that seems to be nowhere on the agenda under Joe Biden.