Wild horses in the Green Mountain Wild Horse Herd Management Area east of Jeffrey City. (Chad Hanson)

I won’t forget the first wild horses I saw: flared nostrils, churning hooves and dreadlock manes. I intended to go fly fishing on Green Mountain, but I made a set of mustang memories instead. 

The unplanned meeting happened years ago. That doesn’t matter. I can still picture the scruffy but yet majestic animals. Experiences, and our recollections afterward, hold deep seats in our minds. Virginia Woolf considered memory “the seamstress that threads our lives together.” Our memories and the stories we tell about them are what make us people. 

After you’ve seen mustangs running, sparring or caring for their foals, they stay in your thoughts. Today, the wild horses I have known make me smile in meetings at the office. They run beside me and lend a bit of grace to my ordinary old-man jog for exercise in the morning. They even lured me to the section of the library dedicated to equine lore and history. There, in the stacks, I learned that the oldest horse fossils on Earth were found in Wyoming.

About a year ago, I uncovered a map on the internet that included a wild horse herd area along the banks of Deer Creek, south of Casper. I also learned that the Bureau of Land Management removed those horses entirely. They no longer exist. At a public meeting, I showed the map to the director of the local BLM office. He looked surprised, even taken aback. He could not remember when the agency decided to eliminate wild horses from the prairie south of my hometown.

Earlier this year, the BLM released a statement on its plan for four of the wild horse ranges in Sweetwater County, near Rock Springs. The agency’s “preferred alternative” would manage three of the four herds for “zero wild horses.” It hopes to reduce the size of the fourth herd by roughly half. 

In a discussion of the impact of the agency’s preferred alternative, the BLM states, “opportunities to view wild horses would be reduced,” and, “there would no longer be any wild horses in the area of the Wild Horse Scenic Loop, a popular place for viewing.” 

For decades, the Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Loop has delighted visitors as a reliable place to watch bands of horses born in the wild.  

Mustangs in the Stewart Creek Wild Horse Herd Management Area, northwest of Rawlins. (Chad Hanson)

Throughout the report, the agency cites, “benefits to livestock grazing,” as a desirable impact of the proposed actions. As of 2018, cattle outnumbered mustangs in Wild Horse Herd Management Areas across BLM lands nationwide by a ratio of 28:1. In the January 2020 report proposing the elimination of wild horses from three of their ranges in Wyoming, the BLM suggests no reduction in the number of livestock that occupy what may soon become “former” Wild Horse Herd Management Areas.

According to the Wyoming Department of Labor, less than 1.5% of the state’s population works in “agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting.” In Natrona County, where I live, the BLM eliminated all of the wild horses in order to make room for livestock — and agricultural enterprises employ 0.3% of the population. 

Few of us own or work on Wyoming ranches, and a shrinking proportion of us consume the state’s agricultural products. The food produced here ships to foreign countries: Japan, Korea, and the European Union. In addition, the BLM’s public lands grazing program is costly to American taxpayers. In 2018, the BLM “spent $34 million on livestock grazing administration,” and “collected $17.3 million in grazing fees” as compensation. In other words, the American people paid $16.7 million to allow a small minority to utilize the public lands that we all own together for their private purposes.   

The people of Wyoming live in neighborhoods, mostly in places like Casper, Cheyenne and Laramie. We leave home and drive to work in the morning. When we aren’t working, we take advantage of the public lands and wildlife that surround us. But the agencies that manage our lands tend to make choices that favor the few, as opposed to the many. Too often, it’s a narrow set of financial interests that take precedence over interests that match the values of the majority.

Wild horses are beloved. In 1971, the Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act passed through both houses of Congress unanimously: not a single dissenting vote. The act makes it plain: wild horses are “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West … they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people.” 

Today, surveys suggest that 80% of us favor the presence of mustangs on our public lands, and as a majority we are obliged to make our voices heard. In the words of our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, “Our duty to the whole … bids us to restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of unborn generations.”

Tourism is the second-largest industry in Wyoming, and it is poised to become our most important source of revenue. Wild horse viewing and photography hold the potential to eclipse hunting and even bird watching as attractions. 

When federal agencies round up and remove our mustangs, it represents a theft of the state’s economic assets, but these actions are more meaningful than that. They amount to a theft of memories. With wild horses missing from the Wyoming landscape, whole generations suffer. In effect, we are stealing life-changing events, even whole chapters from the life stories of young people. Wild horses won’t live in their thoughts as they do in yours or mine. When we lessen what future generations can experience, we reduce what they can remember, and we limit who they might become.    

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The next time a moment slows to the point where you can ponder, try asking yourself: “Will the Americans of the future judge us as good ancestors?” 

How will they remember the generations of today? Will they scoff at the flowerless plains of cheatgrass and cow dung we left behind? Can we protect the scraps of wildness and freedom that remain and pass them on? Will the Americans of the future think of us as wise? Or will they look back and see a generation of thieves, recognized for stealing what could have been memories — the unforgettable components of a life.

Chad Hanson serves as the director of the Wyoming Mustang Institute. His most recent work of nonfiction is “In a Land of Awe: Finding Reverence in the Search for Wild Horses.”

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  1. I grew up here in Fremont County. A lot of those years were spent in the Jeffrey City area. The first day we arrived I seen a herd of about 15 red and white paints running through the snow up by Sheep Mountain. I have been watching the wild horses ever since. This won’t make me popular with my ranching friends but I would rather see horses out on the range and in the mountains than I would cows. It seems the BLM has been more intent on pleasing the ranchers in Wyoming than the rest of us residents, even though they are the minority. Years ago they decided to clear thousands of acres of sage brush and then planted grass on the pretext that it was going to give the deer, elk, and antelope better grazing. In reality it was to improve the gracing for the cattle so that they could increase the number of cattle they ran, thus increasing profit. How much did that cost the taxpayers? That land belongs to all of us and we all should be considered when it comes to it’s use.

  2. Government has been removing wild horses and burro from public lands for over 45 years of my life….
    So that the cattle and sheep that graze on these lands have first priority….

  3. What an amazing article. The picture of those horses with the vast amount of land behind them begs the question what gives the BLM the rights to round these animals up and torture them. I live in the concrete jungle and the first time I visited the western states I was blown away by the beauty and vastness. Chad your article is amazing especially all the facts to back it up. I hope one day to get back out West to see these horses in the wild.

  4. Independent analyses of herd-demographics-at-roundup (combined sample-size = 14,623 wild horses) revealed that foals composed between 13% and 23% of the populations, with a weighted average of approximately 18% (NRC, 1980; McCort, 1984; Gregg et al., 2014). However, yearlings accounted for only about 11% of the herds across these studies, reflecting that approximately 40% of foals die on the range. Further BLM reports that a higher percentage of adult free-roaming horses perish than the 8% that die every year while held in off-range pastures. Thus, the expected net population-growth rate would be, at most, 4%. Indeed, the NRC determined that the normative herd-growth rate would be “well below 10 percent.” Yet, BLM declares that “wild horse populations typically increase by approximately 20% each year ….” Note that 20% is 5 times the expected 4% rate.

    Worse yet, in practice, BLM frequently reports population-increases much-higher than 20%. Astronomical spikes are often, but not always, uncovered in the years following roundups, because the removals hide the underlying biologically-unattainable population-increases alleged by BLM.

    Many fake population-growth figures have been disclosed with regard to the Checkerboard herds. Below are examples of one-year growth rates corresponding to population-increases reported by BLM, and how much those rates deviate from the normative 4%. Removals have been factored in, where applicable.

    Adobe Town
    2019 30% ≃ 8 times the norm
    2018 77% ≃ 19 times the norm
    2016 71% ≃ 18 times the norm
    2009 105% ≃ 26 times the norm

    Divide Basin
    2019 68% ≃ 17 times the norm
    2018 64% ≃ 16 times the norm
    2016 237% ≃ 59 times the norm
    2015 37% ≃ 9 times the norm
    2013 32% ≃ 8 times the norm
    2011 41% ≃ 10 times the norm
    2010 93% ≃ 23 times the norm

    Salt Wells Creek
    2019 33% ≃ 8 times the norm
    2018 73% ≃ 18 times the norm
    2016 522% ≃ 130 times the norm
    2015 212% ≃ 53 times the norm
    2013 91% ≃ 23 times the norm
    2010 63% ≃ 16 times the norm
    2009 42% ≃ 11 times the norm
    2006 136% ≃ 34 times the norm

    White Mountain
    2019 41% ≃ 10 times the norm
    2016 33% ≃ 8 times the norm
    2011 50% ≃ 13 times the norm
    2010 48% ≃ 12 times the norm
    2007 131% ≃ 33 times the norm

  5. Well, I suppose as a resident of NYS – technically I dont have a dog in this fight! However, as a taxpayer and a senior citizen & supposedly part “owner’ of public lands, I have an opinion anyway. For years I’ve read and learned about the destruction that livestock grazing has done to PUBLIC lands. AND the cost to us, the American taxpayers. Of course, we also pay for the warehousing of our native wild horses but since they could be and would be managed on their own HMAs in a more economical (to us, the taxpayers) way then putting them in pens & feeding them alfalfa (much richer diet than their normal one) trying to adopt a few now & then to far too many people who have no reality based concept of what it takes to domesticate any WILD animal, an animal that then gets sent “down the road” & ends up in Mexico or Canada being slaughtered. It really does not matter if you call them “feral” or wild (wild being another word for feral) They deserve better – doesnt matter if some of their ancesters were domestic horses. The ended up here in our Western states (some in the Southern states) they are a part of this country. Just because livestock was brought here from Asia (cattle) & provided a way to make a living for many people does not mean our native wild animals deserve to be wiped out. By the way – am I a “Bambi lover” – yes I am. There are few wild animals remaining where I live – but we do have deer. At this moment in time THEY are MY wild horses.
    Right now in this moment – people are being forced to work in “processing” plants so that folks who cannot get along without their daily portion of beef, pork & chicken – maybe that should change. Maybe its time this country stopped being a consumer of everything and started preserving something.

  6. For whatever reason(s) and there are several if you want to pick your poison, BLM is not managing the wild horses. The arguments for feral vs. wild, livestock vs. wild horses, is neither here nor there at this point. Given that the BLM spends over 2/3 of it’s budget on removal and warehousing horses OFF range. If they contracted and paid the ranchers what they pay the private property / feedlot owners and contractors on a per head basis for ON the range mgmnt it could be very lucrative for the ranchers and permittees and it could be done cost-effectively and humanely. The BLM budget is over 100 million (I believe) as of the new App bill. Somewhere between $1 – $2 per day per head for all of the horses BLM claims in the census would be a good place to start negotiating for a contract to manage ON the range. Give the Stakeholders who are the best candidates on a HMA by HMA basis the mgmnt contracts and a 10 year permit term to manage for AML and bring the population growth rate down below 10%. where necessary. Also, the ranchers are in the best position to do bait trap and gather and administration of PZP at the right time of year which is the critical issue for success with fertility control. The ranchers are the experts on managing stock on the range, they have the equipment, labor, know every sq foot of the range and what’s on it at any given point in time. I’ve done the Math and a budget worksheet if you are interested feel free to contact me .

  7. I suggest anyone that reads this article call your congressman and encourage them to sign on the The Safe Act. It has been stalled in committee far too long. It is a very reasonable and responsible approach to herd conservation. Please look it up on line.

    I ask anyone who made the above comments if they have been to the scenic loop? I live thousands of miles away and always dreamed of seeing the Grand Tetons one day. After visiting a wild horse sanctuary in CA. I have set a goal to see as many herds in the wild as possible. It is a new hobby for me and very heart wrenching at times when I read articles like this. Hobbies should bring joy to life.

    Please stop and ponder; how would America have won a war without the horse.? How would commerce have progressed without the horse? How would Wyoming or Montana or Texas or Nevada, name any state, how would this country has been settled without man’s most cherished partner, the horse?

    Good luck ? Wyoming is just majestic please keep your heritage close to your hearts.

  8. I believe that the BLM is an extremely mismanaged government entity. The wild horse as it exists now is a beautiful part of our state, but it too is mismanaged. What to do with herds that are breeding out of control? Some are going to starve, many are going to be inbred. They have tried training & selling them, but that is not working out as planned. I believe some areas have tried sterilizing females – which seems costly and stupid. Have they tried castration? Haven’t found evidence of this, which would be the least expensive & least controversial option. Something does need to be done to control over population & depleted grazing. I don’t believe that cattle grazing needs to take over all of these lands. I graze cattle on our ranch, and I hunt, so I don’t think that all those opposed to the elimination of the wild horse are against eating meat. The problem seems to be at a higher level – no one is listening.

  9. Yes these horse grab your imagination and seem to be part of the wild Wyoming past. And, they are.Few are ancestors of truly wild horses. Most are ancestors of domestic horses put out to pasture in their old age.
    I do not think they should be eliminated. But, I do think their numbers should be carefully controlled. Ranchers who do not manage their leases responsibly are fined and vilified for damaging ecosystems, But, wild horses can be even worse. They jump fences put up around water sources to protect riparian ecosystems and totally trash them. They can easily over graze and damage the rangeland.
    Most horse lovers are like bambi lovers. They are blind to responsible management of horses. We limit the number of cattle or sheep in an area. We harvest wildlife to manage numbers, but God forbid we allow slaughter of excess horses for food.
    Man has changed the ecosystem drastically and the wild of the imagination is not possible anymore. But responsible management of all the resources is.

    1. I have never been to see the wild horses in WY however have been to see the salt river wild horses in AZ. I know first hand how horses eat . they eat a little here a little over there a little over there. They travel roughly 25 miles per day there is no way they are destroying anything. Cattle on the otherhand stay in one area and eat and eat and eat. This is just the BLM’s way of making more money. I went with my sister to a horse show in California last year and the BLM was there auctioning off wild horses. They tried to tell my sister they (the horses) have it better off being in holding pens than on the range. saying they are starving on the range blah blah blah. I told my sister don’t listen to them they are out to do one thing and one thing only to destroy what God has put on earth for us to enjoy. the so called PUBLIC lands are slowly becoming NON Public lands it’s ranchers land who wants to go see herds and herds of cattle. we need to stop the madness sign every petition call every member of congress let’s be the voice for those that can’t talk.

    2. Thanks Barb, and same to Luke from Cora.
      I used to be very familiar with 3 or 4 FERAL horse herds in Wyoming.
      I don’t much like feral mammals. Dogs, cats, or (gawd forbid) hogs.
      Notice no one refers to birds as feral, but I don’t even like seeing pheasant, never mind the dreaded starling.
      Hunt, harvest, feed to whatever wants to eat them. Then we can start on those introduced fish.
      Okay, go ahead and let the PETA critters off the leash.
      As the very funny bumper sticker says:
      9/10 cannibals say vegans are much tastier and lower in fat than the omnivorous human.

  10. I could not agree more with the premise of the article, though I disagree on the animal for which it is written. BLM lands should be managed as they are intended to be, for multiple use. This means that, in Wyoming, we often have energy production on federal land, alongside recreation. While I typically classify “wild” horse as feral animals, not belonging on the range in Wyoming, I do believe that the BLM land upon which they graze should be left, more often than not, for the use of wildlife and tourism. At a minimum, the grazing leases cited in the article should be profit-making for the agency, the cost of a grazing lease on public land is often 1/15 of a similar lease on nearby private land. This subsidy must go away, allowing market prices to indicate reality.

  11. These horses are not wild. They are feral. The fossil horse (ancestor) that is referred to here would hardly be recognizable to the average person since they were about the size of a house cat. The same law that protects horses (that antiquated Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act ) also specifies population sizes and places where feral horses and burros would be allowed to exist. However, in the 40+ years the law has existed, BLM has been stripped of about every tool available to maintain these populations and populations have exploded in number and spatial distribution. Artificially inflated populations of feral horses impede the potential to recover other, native wildlife.