The Bureau of Land Management in May published an amendment to the plan that guides decisions in the agency’s Rawlins and Rock Springs offices. In the document, the bureau’s staff revealed the new target population for the federally protected mustang herds in the Divide Basin and Salt Wells Creek: “Zero wild horses.” 

Opinion

The BLM’s plan stems from a lawsuit filed by the Rock Springs Grazing Association. Portions of the Salt Wells Creek and Divide Basin herd areas lie on solid-block, or contiguous, public property, but large sections also fall within the “checkerboard,” a blend of public and private land along the Union Pacific and I-80 corridor. In the lawsuit, the RSGA’s legal team explains how, historically, the grazing association had “tolerated” up to 500 mustangs on the checkerboard region that Congress set aside as habitat for wild horses. The RSGA’s lawsuit marked a change, however. The suit made it plain that the group would no longer tolerate any mustangs on the checkerboard’s private sections.

The suit ended in a mutual arrangement, or consent decree. The BLM actually agreed to remove all of the horses from the private and public sections of checkerboard in Salt Wells Creek and Divide Basin. But they did not stop there. They went on to plan the complete removal of both herds. 

A trio of wild horses in the Green Mountain Herd Management Area, June 17, 2022. (Chad Hanson)

If the BLM goes through with its proposal, we will no longer find any wild mustangs on the checkerboard, or on the hundreds of thousands of acres of solid-block public land in either area.

It wouldn’t be the first time that agribusinesses received more than they asked for from the BLM. Shortly after Congress passed the 1971 law that protects the American mustang, the BLM conducted an internal audit of its management practices. The agency’s staff discovered “severe overgrazing” by cattle and sheep. They also conceded that their “objectives were dominated by, and oriented toward, satisfying the wishes, even dreams, of the livestock operators.” The report ends with a call for change. At the time, the BLM’s prescription included a shift toward making “proper allowances” for wild horses, combined with “appropriate reductions” in the forage allotted to stock growers.  

The BLM did not take its own advice. In 1971, mustangs were present in 44 regions across the state of Wyoming. Today, they only remain in 16 of those places. If the BLM carries out its current plan, we will find horses in just 14 of the 44 regions where a federal law protects them. In each of the 28 Wyoming herds where the BLM has set “zero” as the “appropriate” number of mustangs, thousands of sheep and cattle continue to graze. 

Here we are in the third decade of the 21st century, and the federal agency charged with protecting wild horses is still working to eliminate them from their habitat. We still find our public lands perennially damaged by livestock and the effects of overgrazing. In some ways, very little has changed since the 1970s. 

But in some ways, everything has changed. You have to go back closer to 1870 to reach a point where most people in Wyoming could have rightly considered themselves ranchers or cowboys. In the last three generations or more, the role of agribusiness in our economy has only declined

Wyoming is not a rural state today. At least, not in comparison to others. In Wyoming, we tend to live in cities and towns, with unpeopled public land in between. Mostly, we live in neighborhoods. We wake up in the morning and drive to work. Then on the weekend, we look for ways to find adventure and we lean toward looking for adventures in the out-of-doors. Statistically speaking, Wyoming is the adventure state. We value wildlife and natural landscapes, and we are not alone.

A band of wild horses kicks up dust in the Stewart Creek Herd Management Area, Sept. 26, 2020. (Chad Hanson)

In 2021, we broke records for visitation. In that year, state revenue from recreation and tourism added up to nearly double the contribution from agriculture. The national parks led the boom. They are the pride of the country, but they are crowded, and they don’t even represent the best of what’s available to see and experience in Wyoming. Most people find a herd of bison impressive. The sight of a grizzly will sharpen one’s attention. But a band of wild horses running full-tilt across a rugged landscape in the West? There is nothing on this Earth aesthetically powerful enough to pull your eyes away. 

Every time the Bureau of Land Management designates “zero” as the appropriate number of wild horses in a herd, we lose the opportunity to feel our lives enriched by the majesty of the American mustang. Every time the BLM removes wild horses from public land, large groups of us lose the chance to see and experience the most absorbing kind of grandeur that this planet has to offer. To encounter a band of wild horses on a fenceless stretch of prairie is something priceless, of course. It is also easy to picture the lost economic potential when we remove whole herds of mustangs from our public lands.

Chad Hanson

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. Horses are pure. Humans should only love them. How can the few wild horses over-graze anywhere? Leave them alone, please.

  2. I believe that these horses should be left alone! They’ve been here a really long time and there is nothing neater than to see a group or herd of horses running wild on the prairie! They don’t graze like cattle or sheep but they keep getting rousted by the cattle and sheep ranchers!!! Taking them out is cruel punishment for these wonderful creatures that just want to be left alone! Doing a little birth control would be better than wiping them out! Just about anyone who has seen these horses running free will agree with me on this! LEAVE THEM ALONE!

  3. These horses are not wild. They’re feral. Their appeal is entirely emotional, not environmentally sound. They are a prolific invasive species that competes with elk struggling antelope populations for food and water. Additionally, they are hell on the terrain, worse than cattle, destroying sage grouse habitat and turning what little forage there is into dust. The presence of feral horses comes at the expense of native wildlife and their habitat. It’s about time they’re taken off the landscape.

    1. Jordan Martin- Well said. The feral horse need to be eradicated due to their destructive nature. Animal lovers and horse aficionados need to wake up. In the 1970’s, it was not unusual to see brands on the so called “Wild horse”.

    2. With all due respect to your position on this, please look up Western Watershed Project, specifically Erik Molvar. Western Watershed Project is an organization committed to protecting the west’s ecosystem, especially Sage grouse habitat.
      https://westernwatersheds.org/wwp-staff/erik-molvar/
      Mr. Molvar is the executive director & a wildlife biologist. Please consider his research & how these horses play into the ecosystem.

    3. Native Wild horses & burros have a federal right to live & roam free on our public lands. It is a privilege for welfare ranchers to graze livestock on our public lands.

      FEDERAL LAND POLICY AND MANAGEMENT ACT OF 1976
      Grazing Leases and Permits Sec. 402 [43 U.S.C. 1752].
      Public Law 94–579—October 21, 1976, as amended through December 19, 2014

      (j) [Pub. L. No. 113–291, 2014] Applicability of provisions to rights, etc., in or to public lands or lands in National Forests
      Nothing in this Act shall be construed as modifying in any way law existing on October 21, 1976 with respect to the creation of right, title, interest or estate in or to public lands or lands in National Forests by issuance of grazing permits and leases.

  4. It is so very sad that our government turns its backs on our wild horses and burros. They fall through the cracks in the BLM adoption program; large numbers are sold to kill buyers and sent to slaughter in Mexico and Canada. The average American has no idea what is happening to these beautiful animals. Horses and Burros have served this country well for centuries and deserve to stay free and protected on our public lands as stated in the 1971 law. It’s insane that ranchers are grazing cattle and sheep on our Federal lands and working towards annihilating our native horses and burros through continuous inhumane helicopters roundups throughout the west. I am very thankful for our wild equine advocates like Chad Hansen and others that work tirelessly to educate our citizens on these atrocities that are ongoing with no attention by our local and National news for these iconic animals.

    1. I totally agree with you on this. The horses are getting all the blame for the deterioration of the prairie when a lot of it is due to over grazing by the cattle and sheep people!

  5. BLM and ranchers want our public lands to graze cattle and sheep, a lot of Wyomingites would like to have our wild horses remain. The land and the horses belong to the people not livestock growers.

  6. Wild horses are native.
    I believe the science.
    “Although mammoths are gone forever, horses are not” says Ross MacPhee of the American Museum of Natural History, another co-author. “The horse that lived in the Yukon 5,000 years ago is directly related to the horse species we have today, Equus caballus. Biologically, this makes the horse a native North American mammal, and it should be treated as such.”
    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/12/211208090008.htm

  7. Stop blaming the Wild Mustangs and Burros for all of the damage being done on public lands. Let them run Wild and Free. It is time to Protect and Preserve the Wild Mustangs and Burros!

  8. Gina the logic you use fails to address the fact that the horses are in fact not wildlife but feral livestock that is doing exactly what you rail against from said livestock. If they are to live on the public lands in any #’s at all the current protections need to be changed drastically. A herd of horses running free is a beautiful picture but only a very small part the story. The damage they do in the uncontrolled numbers they currently exist in is a crime against the rest of the ecosystem they occupy. By the way the BLM and other federal agencies are also charged with managing the habitat they control for all wildlife and multiple use.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6h242vy_q8 check out this video of the effects of overgrazing by feral horses.

    1. Wild Native Horses & Burros have a federal right to live & roam free on our public lands; it is just a privilege for welfare ranching livestock.

      FEDERAL LAND POLICY AND MANAGEMENT ACT OF 1976
      Grazing Leases and Permits Sec. 402 [43 U.S.C. 1752].
      Public Law 94–579—October 21, 1976, as amended through December 19, 2014

      (j) [Pub. L. No. 113–291, 2014] Applicability of provisions to rights, etc., in or to public lands or lands in National Forests
      Nothing in this Act shall be construed as modifying in any way law existing on October 21, 1976 with respect to the creation of right, title, interest or estate in or to public lands or lands in National Forests by issuance of grazing permits and leases.

  9. Leave these magnificent animals alone. They are some of the most intelligent creatures on earth. They have souls and grieve as we do. Kindness to all living things🙏

  10. I can only stress that we leave our wild horses & burros on their land. BLM has no right to remove any of them from public land. They are breaking the law. Leave them alone!!

  11. OMG — amazing article. This statement tells it all “Here we are in the third decade of the 21st century, and the federal agency charged with protecting wild horses is still working to eliminate them from their habitat. We still find our public lands perennially damaged by livestock and the effects of overgrazing. In some ways, very little has changed since the 1970s. ” There is room for wild horses and livestock owers have to accept they don’t rule or own our public land — WE DO!.

  12. WE DESPERATELY NEED LAND CONSOLIDATION/TRADES IN THE CHECKERBOARD: The public has no right to graze public owned wild horses ( branded as such ) on private land without paying the land owners of the private sections for forage. The wild horses that are rounded up and relocated to privately owned ranches, pay the landowner over $60 per month for long term keep. Under Wyoming law, a landowner that is trespassed upon by anothers livestock can file a feeding lien against the trespassing animals and be compensated for lost forage.With respect to deer, antelope and elk the private landowners do get some form of compensation for grazing the publicly owned wildlife on their private land. Many of Wyoming’s wild horses are not only invasive species but estrays that in some cases are abandoned horses set free. This is really a problem on the Wind River Indian Reservation where over 5,000 estrays/wild horses run uncontrolled or properly managed; and, the BIA does not have the funds to roundup/manage the horses. At least in the checker board lands, the Rock Springs Grazing Assn. has a legitimate argument concerning trespassing wild horses on private land and nobody wants to fence each individual section of BLM and private land to prevent trespass. For these reasons, land consolidation/trades is a must in the checker board area.

    1. Continued: Land consolidation will also solve many of the corner crossing problems in the checker board. Two very compelling reasons to encourage the BLM to pursue consolidation of the checker board lands.

  13. The only surviving horse specie native to Wyoming and North America is the Appaloosa, which evolved here. Those Appies actually left North America and went back of the Beringia land bridge to Asia before the last glaciation, before any human transmigration and habitation near as we know. Appies returned here as semi-domesticated horse thousands of years later when there we no longer any horses on the land. All horses in Wyoming and North America not Appaloosas are in fact alien exotic imported animals.

    Even the Spanish Grulla horses present in the Pryor Mountain range on the Wyoming-Montana border are not wholly wild , but perhaps are the only line that can begin to claim the title of ‘ Mustang ‘.

    As pointed out here, the horse ranging wild in the West are feral animals , not present at all more than 500 years ago. When the first horses arrived in the New World, the indigenous people all across the Continent had no animals to share life with beyond their wolf-dog variants.

    We all love horses. But their place on the western landscape has never been fully resolved. You do not want to hear what I think about alien exotic cattle and sheep on public lands in the West , who do not deserve the privileges and places they currently possess. The Cattle Barons, Sheep Kings, and other breeds of the landed aristocracy both 2 and 4-legged brought here from Europe were and remain Usurpers.

    1. Dewey: the fossil record in Wyoming and Nebraska has yielded numerous fossil horses going all the way back to the Eocene about 45 million years ago. It includes the fascinating 3 toed horse that were medium sized dog size. True, there is a long history of horses here.

  14. If anyone is truly wanting to understand the effects of wild horses on the ecosystem I recommend checking out Western Watershed Project’s study of this very issue.
    Also interesting to note is the horse originated in North America & then died off & then were reintroduced. Just depends on how far back you want to go. But the horse is designed to live on the North American steppes. What we need is natural predator reintroduction so nature can manage them as intended. It is happening in the Montgomery Wild Horse territory on the CA/NV border. Mountain lions still prey on wild horses out there.
    As for personal livestock for profit on public lands, that’s a long going historical debate. These areas were designated as wild horse areas & should be managed as such. Personal profit shouldn’t trump wild horse management in designated wild horse areas in my opinion. Everyone needs to work together, not against each other. Yes the national parks are my number one reason to visit WY, but wild horses come in as a close second. Maybe if ranchers want to use public lands they should subsidize the wild horse management as part of their agreement with the BLM. Seems fair considering profits are being made from public lands. Perhaps grazing fees should also pay enough for each AUM to actually cover the cost of the lease. As a tax payer I don’t appreciate subsidizing this program. Just make it fair for all entities. I get the wild west of olden days, but its 2022 & the program needs a major overhaul.

    1. Great points. Thank you for pointing out that wild horses are NOT an invasive species but in fact a native reintroduced species!

  15. Wild horses benefit the ecosystems where they live. They spread grass seeds through their manure and reseed large areas of the forest where they roam, counteracting the damage caused by overgrazing of commercial livestock. See the studies conducted by Western Watersheds Project to understand more. Wild horses also reduce the fire fuels which aids in protecting the lands from devastating forest fires. And they certainly do contribute to the enjoyment of the public on the public lands. What is more beautiful than seeing a herd of wild horses running free? 🐎💨

  16. Spent a lot of time in the area in question. Never seen people drive out there for the horses. They are Eurasian livestock just like the cattle.

  17. Let us not forget our native herds of large ungulates – elk, pronghorn, and mule deer who are forced to compete against these introduced horses in critical winter ranges. Why should we prioritize alien horses over the survival of our native species?

  18. Your point about wildlife viewing in WY is Key here. The feral horses you refer to are not wildlife but in fact an invasive species! They drive out native wildlife like sage grouse, mule deer and other forms of native wildlife. The destruction caused by feral horses and burros is absolutely unacceptable. Water is the key in the west for all forms of activity and the overuse of this isolated resource by this invasive species is driving native wildlife out. If someone wants to profit off these animals, they should move them to their private ranchland and control their numbers.
    We are battling invasive weeds, aquatic organisms and any number of other organisms every day. The removal of feral non-native horses and burros would be quick and complete if allowed to happen ending this invasive problem. These are feral livestock, like the feral hog issue the rest of the US is trying to deal with, not wildlife! Just to dispel any comments I own and cherish my horses and mules, but they only belong where they are controlled and cared for.

  19. The author does not present the entire story. Overgrazing by domestic livestock does occur. But wild horses – an invasive species – do damage in different ways, and their impacts on native wildlife has been staggering in states further to the west. We would do well to learn from those mistakes and manage both wild horses and domestic livestock sustainably before the damage to ecosystems is irreversible. Wyoming is “lucky” in that the wild horses here have not yet suffered the devastating consequences of starvation and lack of water due in part to uncontrolled population growth. The stunning pictures offered here will take on a far different message when that happens. Recent scientific research has also documented that the presence of wild horses is positively associated with increasing cheatgrass – the primary threat to native rangeland ecosystems and fuel for wildfires that could ultimately damage not only habitats but homes and businesses. The author also fails to present economic data that supports people come to Wyoming just to see wild horses – they are effectively a sideshow for those who are willing to venture off the paved roads – a very small percentage of our visitors.

    Wyoming needs to be proactive in management of both wild horse and domestic livestock on public lands before options are taken away completely out of necessity. We can have both but only if folks deal in facts and not romance.

  20. The wild mustang is not an indigenous species in the ecosystem bison should be what we should be concerned about . Horses never stop eating but they don’t destroy a water source like domestic cattle and sheep displace everything . No one understands that it take years for the land to recover from overgrazing

    1. Thank you for your common sense! Thank you!
      The burros and horses may not be indigneous to Wyoming but neither are cattle or sheep! Taking the horses out of the prairie would be like taking the wolves out of Yellowstone! They have proved that the Ecosystems have improved since they have been restored and the ranchers and sheep people still want them eradicated! I suppose the next thing will be to erase the Oregon Trail remains so that people won’t be reminded of the past! Use your heads people!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!