Wild horses have a target on their back

By Jennifer O’Connor

Just a century ago, millions of horses roamed the American West. By 1970, after being targeted for sport and killed for pet food and fertilizer, only 17,000 were left. In response, Congress passed a law to protect them and made it a crime for anyone to harass or kill wild horses on most federal land. However, that hasn’t stopped the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from continuing to round up tens of thousands of these horses, whose fate is often uncertain.

Euphemistically called “gathers,” the BLM conducts sweeping roundups on our nation’s open ranges using motorized vehicles and helicopters that terrorize the animals. Traumatized by the inescapable noise and physically exhausted from running, horses — some of whom incur injuries in the chaos — are packed into holding corrals. They may be held for years before being sold.

Although all buyers must sign contracts promising that animals bought from the program will not be slaughtered, one of the BLM’s biggest customers is an advocate of horse slaughter. The buyer moved horses across state lines and refused to say where they ended up. A government report determined that 1,700 were killed. Appallingly, those may be the “lucky” ones.

Many of those removed from the wide-open rangeland end up warehoused in corrals for the rest of their lives even though the BLM admits that its “long-term pastures” are “nearly filled to capacity.” And, of course, taxpayers shoulder the cost of this debacle: The BLM spent nearly $390 million on holding horses between 2012 and 2020.

Horses are social animals who use 17 different facial expressions to communicate — more than dogs and chimpanzees. Each herd has unique dynamics, just like our families. Horses tend to hang out most often with those whose company they prefer. Bonds are formed and sometimes broken. After foals grow up, some decide to stick around while others take off to make their own way. Even in established herds, there are squabbles over personal space and competition for position within the family hierarchy. One researcher said “long-term observation of these animals in the wild is like following a soap opera.”

So it is abjectly cruel to break up horse families and upend their social structure. Speciesism—ascribing an inferior status to those who don’t happen to be human — can take many forms, and treating wild horses as nuisances to be removed is one of them.

The BLM makes the disingenuous claim that range conditions can’t support unmanaged wild horse populations, yet wild horses are present on just 17% of BLM rangelands. They are vastly outnumbered by livestock. Cattle graze and roam over millions of the same acres and consume enormous amounts of grass and water. The bottom line is that this suffering is being inflicted on horses in order to appease ranchers and to safeguard their interests.

Rounding up wild horses with helicopters, selling them to killers or corralling them for life is indefensible. Let your federal representatives know that you want this BLM boondoggle to end.