For some, wild horses and burros are an iconic symbol of the West, representing the freedom and ruggedness that define the frontier. For a growing number of conservationists, hunters and others concerned about native wildlife and habitats, feral horses are a scourge on the landscape. They trample sensitive plants, devour food meant for native species and bully wildlife away from water sources.

The Bureau of Land Management says there are at least 83,000 feral horses and burros scattered across the West, which is more than three times the BLM’s population objective. The highest numbers are in Nevada, but at least 10 states have feral horses. Their numbers have skyrocketed in recent years.

The damage horses cause is indisputable. According to a fact sheet put out by The Wildlife Society, an association of professional wildlife biologists and managers, “Areas occupied by feral horses tend to have fewer plant species, less plant cover and more invasive plants and less abundant small mammal and reptile populations.”

TWS says that horses exclude native wildlife, including bighorn sheep, elk and mule deer, from watering holes and preferred foraging areas. As they put it, the “impacts can be substantial.”

So far, the animals have been locked in a tug-of-war between those that want non-native horse populations reduced, and those that detest lethal solutions. The BLM and the U.S. Forest Service, the agencies primarily responsible for this problem, are bound by the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, which precludes lethal management of these animals. Congress has affirmed several times since then that they don’t want horses killed.

One thing seems certain: Doing nothing is not only detrimental to the landscape, but it is expensive. The BLM spent more than $81 million on horse management in 2018, which is nearly $1,000 per animal. Expenses include everything from catching and holding horses in pens to regularly filling up man-made water sources. Sixty-one percent of the total feral horse budget is allocated to off-range holding costs for thousands of captured horses and burros.

It is, horse proponents and opponents agree, an unsustainable course and it’s likely to get worse. Dr. Barry Perryman, a rangeland ecology professor at the University of Nevada, told National Geographic that horse numbers will continue to increase dramatically.

“If we continue down this path of unregulated breeding and mismanagement, the BLM’s wild horse populations will continue to expand to, say, 100,000, 120,000, or 150,000, maybe more, depending on how many good precipitation years we have,” Perryman said.

Many solutions have been proposed, from the ridiculous to the unseemly. The idea most popular with feral horse advocacy groups is a contraceptive called porcine zona pellicuda, a derivative of slaughterhouse pig ovaries that prevents feral mares from getting pregnant for about a year after they receive the injection. PZP has been used for years to keep wild horse numbers in check on Assateauge Island National Seashore on the coasts of Virginia and Maryland.

However, the Assateague herd numbers fewer than 125 animals and encompasses a fraction of the land area occupied by the West’s horses. What’s more, PZP requires a series of injections in order to be successful, including an annual booster. The BLM does not have the resources to capture and vaccinate tens of thousands of wild horses, nor to keep tabs on every horse that has been treated and keep their shots up to date.

Another potential means of sterilizing wild horses was abandoned in November in the wake of lawsuits from wild horse and animal rights advocacy groups. Ovariectomy via colpotomy—essentially hysterectomy for horses, the removal of mares’ ovaries—was to be tested at an Oregon facility, but has been deemed inhumane.

The BLM offers horses for adoption with some degree of success, giving away more than 240,000 since 1971 (2,500 were adopted in 2015). Some adopters get up to $1,000 for taking a horse, and the federal agency spent more than $8 million on its adoption program in 2018.

But growing number of conservationists are calling for a more drastic approach: euthanizing unwanted animals kept in holding pens. According to another National Geographic article that examined the potential solutions, seven of eight members of a volunteer citizen advisory panel voted to allow such euthanasia. The BLM, however, vetoed the vote because Congress has made it abundantly clear through oversight and legislation that they do not want horses killed.

Some proposed solutions are really far-fetched. In a May, 2018 article in the New York Times, Dave Phillips, author of “Wild Horse Country,” advocated for stopping mountain lion hunting so they can eat the horses.

“One University of Nevada study found that in several mountain ranges of the state, horses made up the majority of lion’s diets,” Phillips wrote. “Some lion mothers who were collared and tracked feasted almost entirely on mustangs, and taught their young to do the same. If all of those mountain lions had lived, and killed three horses each in 2014, they could have halted nearly all of the growth of horse herds that year.”

As Steve Rinella pointed out in Episode 126 of the MeatEater Podcast, Phillips’ logic is pretty sketchy. Janis Putelis also noted numerous examples of areas with no lion hunting and a gross overpopulation of horses, the most glaring example being California. The state has not had a lion hunting season since 1972 and has as many as 6,000 cougars. They also have nearly 11,000 wild horses, five times the BLM’s appropriate management level.

Another proposal that has been mentioned is “sales without stipulation” where horses could be purchased for any purpose. Currently, the BLM does not give title to an adopted horse until after it has been held for at least a year. The agency also has strict requirements for the care of any adopted horses, and potential owners must go through a vetting process. This prevents the horses from going to slaughterhouses in Canada or Mexico (as many once did) under the assumption that caring for an animal for a year would not make a purchase profitable.

A sale without stipulation could mean the animals would be sold for pet food or even human consumption. However, it would also remove the red tape that currently discourages some potential adoptees. There’s no indication that the BLM will implement these types of sales.

The most logical and effective—albeit drastic—solution of shooting horses on their range is pretty clearly out of the question, although culling has been suggested by many conservation-minded wildlife and habitat managers. The Navajo Nation had plans last year to issue tags for severely over-populated feral horses on their reservation, but quickly cancelled them due to enormous public outcry.

The Wildlife Society issued a vague statement that called for prioritizing “science-based management tools to immediately reduce the number of wild horses on the range.” It doesn’t specifically state anything related to killing horses, but other options clearly have not worked. And even if a growing number of scientists publicly support euthanasia, it’s unlikely to ever happen because of public opposition.

With adoption as one of the few approved control methods, it doesn’t seem as if a real solution is on the horizon. Conservationists have agreed that there’s too many horses, but now we need to agree on how to fix it. Nature isn’t going to sort itself out on this one.

Feature image via Pixabay.