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‘It will never end’: Long a symbol of the West, debate rages over wild horse management

Nevada has more than 40,000 wild horses and burros — a population the federal government manages amid withering criticism from advocates
Amy Alonzo
Amy Alonzo
Environment
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Jute panels strung between T-posts fan out in a funnel shape, with juniper bushes flanking the fencing on one side, a sea of sagebrush on the other. At the apex of the funnel, a makeshift horse corral sits empty and waiting.

As the sun crests the horizon and lights up the Clover Valley and nearby Ruby Mountains, the corral is filled with the first of the many wild horses rounded up by contractors hired by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal agency tasked with managing most of the nation’s 83,000 wild horses and burros.

The herds of horses are directed toward the trap by a helicopter buzzing behind them, and by mid-afternoon, the last of the horses are transported from the corral to a holding pen in a remote corner of the eastern Nevada desert. The jute fencing and T-posts are taken down. With all signs of the day’s events erased, “the only thing you’ll see is tracks,” said Garrett Swisher, wild horse and burro specialist with the BLM’s Winnemucca office.

This is the Antelope North Complex, one of the largest BLM wild horse gathers in the nation this year. 

It is also the scene of one of the West’s greatest debates — if and how wild horses should be managed.

The gathers, also known as roundups, are the BLM’s attempt to keep wild horse and burro populations in check across the West. According to the agency’s estimates, more than 40,000 reside in Nevada. Left unchecked, the agency says, their populations can double in four to five years, causing habitat loss and negatively affecting other wildlife.

With nearly 7,000 horses in an area that can reasonably provide food and water to anywhere from 300 to 650 horses, Antelope North has too many horses to sustain, according to Jenny Lesieutre, wild horse and burro public affairs specialist for the BLM. 

But roundups using helicopters like the Antelope North Complex are called an inhumane relic of the past by wild horse advocates. 

The roundups are monitored daily by their watchful eyes and cameras as they document every movement of the horses, the contractors and federal employees. The advocacy groups also regularly file lawsuits seeking to block the gather of wild horses, including one this year seeking to halt operations at the Antelope North Complex. 

The lawsuits vary from year to year with a similar underlying theme — stop the helicopter gathers and ensure the humane treatment of the horses. 

The BLM reports a death rate of under 1 percent at its gathers. Some of the deaths were caused by the gathers, but the majority — 28 — are what the BLM calls “chronic” — former injuries to the horses that the BLM decides warrant euthanasia.

While death is not the intended outcome, the agency touts that a 1 percent mortality rate is extremely low for working with wildlife.

By the end of the Antelope Complex gather, which spanned north and south units across more than 852,000 acres of public and private land, roughly 3,000 horses had been removed. Thirty-nine died.

“Nobody wants to see the death of a horse,” Swisher said. “But if they’re suffering, we’re going to put them down.”

For advocates, even one death is too many.

“Our opposition to the helicopter roundups is they are outdated,” said Suzanne Roy, executive director of American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC). “It’s time to modernize this approach to wild horse management and manage them in the wild where they belong.”

Earlier this year, Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV) introduced legislation that would ban the use of helicopters in wild horse gathers, while multiple rural Nevada counties declared states of emergencies over excess wild horse populations.

Amid the debate over best practices for management of the horses between the agency tasked with their management and privately funded advocacy groups calling for reform of those practices, nobody is winning, a report by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) points out. 

“Science alone, even the best science, cannot resolve the divergent viewpoints on how best to manage free-ranging horses and burros on public lands,” the report states. 

A helicopter from Cattoor Livestock Roundup Company, private contractors hired by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, carry out gather operations at the Antelope Complex North herd management area on Aug. 2, 2023. (Tim Lenard/The Nevada Independent)

A healthy range means healthy animals 

Debate about the West’s wild horses goes back as far as the origins of the equines.

Advocates like AWHC cite research the group helped fund from University of California, Santa Cruz that states the West’s feral horses are descended from horses domesticated in Asia around 5,500 years ago. 

The BLM acknowledges some wild horses are descendants of those that came to North America with European settlers in the 15th and 16th centuries, but maintains that most of the horses are direct descendants of domestic animals that escaped captivity in the 19th and 20th centuries, as documented by other institutions, such as Colorado State University. 

Now, the agency and advocates are at odds on virtually every aspect of their management — much of it revolving around the original federal legislation governing management of wild horses.

In 1971, Congress passed the Wild Horse and Burro Act, declaring the animals “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” The act states that the animals were disappearing quickly — at the time, there were around 25,000 wild horses and burros left nationwide, while also declaring they “shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death.”

The act gives the Department of the Interior (the agency that oversees the BLM) authority to manage the wild horses and burros “to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands.”

Under that direction, the BLM monitors wild horse populations, removes excess animals and places them up for adoption. The act also states that excess wild horses and burros that cannot be adopted out “be destroyed in the most humane and cost-efficient manner possible.”

The BLM has not used its authority to destroy healthy animals since 1982. Since 1988, most appropriations bills approved by Congress have included provisions that prohibit using federal funds for the destruction of healthy animals or for selling them for processing into commercial products such as dog food. 

But horse advocates argue that just because horses aren’t being directly sold to slaughter doesn’t mean they are being treated humanely.

In the mid-1970s, the Wild Horse and Burro Act was amended to allow motorized equipment such as helicopters and trailers. The population of wild horses had grown to around 60,000.

By 2007, that number dropped to about 29,000 and, for several years, the agency only gathered as many animals as it could adopt out. Now, the agency gathers thousands of horses each year. Between 2004 and 2017, the agency gathered more than 40,000 horses and burros.

Every four years or so, the BLM flies over herd management areas — HMAs — to count the number of horses while also performing ground surveys. 

Some wild horse advocates assert the BLM overexaggerates its numbers, but the 2013 NAS report estimated the BLM’s counts could be up to 30 percent below the actual number of horses. Now, the numbers are cross-checked by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to determine a more exact population. The final numbers are used to make management decisions.

The methodology of the BLM and USGS to determine the number of horses is scientifically sound, according to Tamzen Stringham, a professor at UNR’s department of agriculture, veterinary and rangeland sciences, and a rangeland ecologist.

“Some people are going to argue the numbers are too low, some are going to argue the numbers are too high,” she said. “So, when you have both sides fighting, you probably have a pretty good number.”

For Stringham, the bigger concern is the overall health of the rangeland. The BLM last updated its appropriate management levels — the number of horses each herd management area can sustain — decades ago, and rangeland carrying capacity has deteriorated substantially since then, Stringham said.

Wildfires have devastated much of the landscape — more than 8.8 million acres have burned in Nevada over the past 20 years.

“We need to reevaluate these HMAs and evaluate their current conditions. Where are the waters, how much forage is out there, have they burned, what other animals are out there — we really need to take a hard look at the overall carrying capacity of where we’re running horses, whether there’s livestock on there or not,” Stringham said. “If we really want to have healthy horses, we need to have healthy rangelands. If we’re just focused on the animal, we’re not focused on the habitat. Any time you become single species focused, you lose an understanding of the habitat.”

Wild horses are what Stringham calls an “apex grazer … the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of rangelands because they move faster, consume more forage and aggressively defend access to their watering holes.

“In Nevada, the limiting resource is typically water,” she said. “They’ll just stand on it, to the detriment of the other wildlife that’s out there.”

Garrett Swisher, wild horse and burro specialist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Winnemucca office, at the Antelope Complex North wild horse gather about an hour south of Wells on Aug. 2, 2023. (Tim Lenard/The Nevada Independent)

Monitoring the wild horse gathers

On Aug. 2, the day The Indy visited the Antelope Complex North roundup, the BLM’s target was to gather around 40 animals. About 70 were removed from the range that day. None of the animals were euthanized or severely injured, although two did escape.

To the casual observer, the roundup appeared largely uneventful.

The roundups start miles away from the trap site on the open range. By flying behind and to the side of the horses, the pilot directs them toward the trap site as they run from the helicopter. 

Observers only see the end of each herd being rounded up, as the horses, steered by the helicopter, gallop toward the trap, camouflaged in a stand of trees. The helicopter generally stays a half mile or so from the horses, Swisher said, flying closer to the animals as they approach the trap. 

Observers are kept a solid distance from the trap site — on the day The Indy observed, about a mile away — and are asked not to make sudden movements as horses near the trap. The thwack thwack thwack of the helicopter would signal the arrival of the horses before they were visible, although the distance between the observers and the trap site made it difficult to see details without binoculars or a camera.

About every hour or so, a truck hauling an empty trailer would rumble past the observation point on a rough dirt road toward the trap. Shortly after, the truck would depart with the horses in the trailer for a holding facility about an hour and a half southeast of Wells. At the holding facility, horses were sorted by age and gender; the sorting process was complete before observers were allowed to walk around the holding facility on a tour monitored by Swisher.

Within a couple of days, the animals were transferred to Indian Lakes, a privately operated corral near Fallon that can house up to 7,600 horses and burros. 

The gathering operations are open to the public for viewing. But they don’t draw many casual observers. Instead, at every gather, volunteers from wild horse advocacy groups like Wild Horse Education and AWHC monitor them from start to finish.

Armed with coolers, cameras, notepads, binoculars and anything else they might need for hours of observation under the relentless Nevada sun, the volunteers observe each day of each roundup from start to finish, submitting reports at the end of the day.

Those findings are shared on websites, in videos showing fragments of the gathers and through email blasts and social media posts.

This year, videos shared by wild horse advocacy groups on social media have spurred protests in front of the state capitol and even death threats against BLM staff.

The day The Indy attended the Antelope North gather, Colette Kaluza from WHE and Monica Ross from AWHC camped under different junipers — the trees offer shade and help camouflage the viewers — to monitor the gather. Other than setting up and breaking down their observation areas, the two never interacted. The air was noticeably terse. 

The tension highlighted the crux of the debate about wild horses— that even among horse advocates who oppose the BLM roundups, there is no agreement on how to best manage the animals.

Kaluza declined to speak to The Indy in detail, citing ongoing litigation between WHE and the BLM, while Ross spent much of her time sitting with BLM staff and talking with staff from The Indy.

Ross adopted her two horses — Liberty and her offspring Blaze — after a gather in Palomino Valley. Each horse’s name is tattooed on her forearms.

“They are my inspiration for everything I do out here,” Ross said. “I fell in love with them so completely.”

Since their adoption, she has helped find homes for close to a dozen horses gathered from the Palomino Valley.

“This is what I do,” she said.

She doesn’t believe the BLM’s estimates for the number of horses on the range, and she worries about what happens to the horses after they are sent to holding facilities or adopted out.

It’s the reason she logged 60,000 miles last year traveling to and from wild horse gathers. To hold the BLM accountable.

“They say over and over they’re gonna do better, and they don’t,” she said.

Lesieutre, the public affairs specialist for the BLM, disagrees.

“As time goes on, we learn things to do it better,” she said. “We want to improve.”

Monica Ross from American Wild Horse Campaign, a horse advocacy group, poses for a portrait after spending the day observing gather operations on the Antelope Complex North herd management area on Aug. 2, 2023. (Tim Lenard/The Nevada Independent)

Helicopters: Relics of the past or a necessary tool? 

In May, Titus introduced the Wild Horse and Burro Protection Act of 2023

Titus also submitted a letter to the BLM requesting the agency eliminate the use of helicopters and “explore opportunities for utilizing alternative aircraft and traditional cowboys for these purposes.”

Also this year, seven rural Nevada counties  — White Pine, Pershing, Lincoln, Lander, Humboldt, Eureka and Elko — declared states of emergencies because of the excess populations of wild horses and their impacts. 

Those declarations of emergency were included in a July letter by state Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) to Nevada’s congressional delegation, stating that “Nevada’s aridity, coupled with the Federal Government’s failure to comply with its own law, has resulted in inhumane consequences being inflicted on these animals resulting in starvation, dehydration, and death.”

In a recent interview with a Northern Nevada television station, Titus said “it would be a lot cheaper just to hire a cowboy to do a roundup than it would be to contract with these helicopter companies.”

In a follow-up interview with The Indy, Titus (who said that she’s never attended a roundup) said she supports darting mares with birth control to keep the horses from reproducing.

Earlier this year, the BLM approved testing of two new fertility control vaccines for wild horses at a Carson City corral. The Carson City trial is exploring single-dose treatments and changing where the horses are injected.

To test the vaccines’ effectiveness, groups of vaccinated mares will live in a pen with a stallion. Researchers will monitor the mares’ responses to the vaccines and compare them against a control group.

But results from the tests are three to five years out, Lesieutre estimated. And even once those fertility measures are put into practice, they only slow growth instead of stopping it, she said.

The agency treated 1,622 mares with fertility control in the 2022 fiscal year, up from 1,160 in 2021 and 735 in 2020.

“And if you do it with darts, you can do it with cowboys, and that’s job making for rural Nevada,” Titus said. When her legislation was introduced, she stated that using cowboys for roundups rather than helicopters would offer “workforce opportunities for traditional cowboys.”

Swisher, the wild horse and burro specialist, doesn’t see that as a practical option.

“It’s very dangerous to be out here on a horse,” he said.

Those dangers extend to the feral horses, domestic horses and the cowboys, Lesieutre said. Riders on horseback can’t see dangers ahead and slow down or redirect wild horses, but helicopters can see far off obstacles such as cliffs or fences and redirect the animals, she said.

Plus, Swisher added, “a helicopter will never be outrun by a horse.”

Swisher acknowledges the gathers are hard on the horses. But he stands firm in what he believes.

“The most humane way to gather horses is with a helicopter,” he said.

Roy, the head of AWHC, disagrees.

The BLM has animal welfare guidelines that dictate how animals should be treated in the gathers.

Groups like AWHC are looking for adherence to those guidelines, like not gathering horses in extreme heat, Roy said, and in her opinion, the BLM doesn’t follow them.

“If they are going to use helicopters — and we don’t want them to — they need to improve the standards and enforce them,” she said. Adding cameras to helicopters could increase accountability and transparency, she said. 

A recent study at the University of Wyoming compiled BLM data for 70 gathers between 2010 and 2019. Involving more than 29,000 horses and 2,000 burros in nine states, the study looked at 36 helicopter gathers and 34-bait trapping gathers, where horses freely entered wide enclosures with water and food before hidden ground crews closed a gate around them with a remote control.

The death rate at helicopter gathers hovered around 1 percent, while the rate at bait-trap gathers was 1.7 percent. According to the report, death rates with other, similar wildlife captures, such as those for scientific research of elk, deer and caribou, reach up to 20 percent.

Despite several highly publicized deaths, the number of horses at this year’s Antelope Complex gather hovered around 1 percent.

WHE files lawsuits almost annually against the BLM. Since 2009, the group has filed litigation to stop the roundups in all but one year. AWHC has filed additional lawsuits against the BLM to stop roundups.

This year, WHE sought a restraining order against the BLM to temporarily halt the gathers.

“Observers watched in horror as the BLM’s helicopters chased stallions, mares, and foals, causing such panic that many animals were injured or broke their legs and had to be euthanized,” according to the lawsuit.

Reno district court Judge Larry Hicks diagreed. Siding with the BLM at an Aug. 9 hearing on the matter, he stated “there was not any inhumane treatment that was involved in this gather.”

U.S. Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Jenny Lesieutre at the Antelope Complex North wild horse gather about an hour south of Wells on Aug. 2, 2023. (Tim Lenard/The Nevada Independent)

Debate over horse management ‘will never end’

Any horses that are not adopted spend the remainder of their lives in long-range holding facilities. The BLM spends about two-thirds of its annual wild horse and burro program budget caring for horses at long-term holding pastures that span the country from Washington to Illinois to Texas.

In the 2022 fiscal year, the BLM’s wild horse and burro budget was $137.1 million — an 18 percent increase over the prior year’s funding of $115.7 million and more than six times the agency’s fiscal year 2000 appropriation of $20.4 million. In 2020, the agency spent anywhere from $2 to $5 per day to care for each horse in short-term and long-term holding facilities.

That the swelling number of horses at the long-term holding facilities is unsustainable — almost 50,000 in 2019 — is one of the few things the BLM and wild horse advocates agree on.

But so is the number of horses on the range, Lesieutre points out.

For the 2024 fiscal year, the Senate Interior Appropriations Committee included language calling for $148 million for wild horse and burro management, with $11 million dedicated to fertility control. The House Interior Appropriations Committee approved $155 million for management, including $11 million for fertility control, but doesn’t require its immediate use on the range. Once a final bill has been negotiated between the two chambers, it must pass both the House and Senate and be signed by the president.

In the meantime, the BLM will continue gathering thousands of horses across the West under intense public scrutiny, which has increased over the past decade, in large part because of the rise in social media.

Titus said she’s received calls from people as far away as Italy who have seen the videos and voiced concerns over the treatment of the West’s wild horses.

The agency counters that the videos show the exceptions, not the rule, of what truly goes on at the gathers.

People whose only experience with roundups comes via social media don’t know what’s going on, Lesieutre said — not because of a lack of government transparency, but because of a lack of understanding of the environment, governmental policies and horses.

“You’re going to find the majority of them are in states and countries that don’t have wild horses and burros and their environment is much different,” she said. “There’s the complexity of it — separating what’s feasible and what’s pretty.”

As the fights and back-and-forth between the BLM, local governments and advocacy groups continue on with no end in sight, one clear loser emerges.

The horses.

“It’s not doing anything good. And it’s supposed to be for the horses,” Lesieutre said. “It will never end.”

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