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BLM>Wild Horses and Burros>History and Facts>Myths and Facts
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Myths and Facts

Contact: Tom Gorey, BLM Public Affairs (202-912-7420)

Updated as of March 2011 

Myth #1:  The BLM is selling or sending wild horses to slaughter.

Fact:  This charge is absolutely false.  The Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management care deeply about the well-being of wild horses, both on and off the range, and the BLM does not and has not sold or sent horses or burros to slaughter.  Consequently, as the Government Accountability Office noted in a report issued in October 2008, the BLM is not in compliance with a December 2004 amendment to the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act that directs the Bureau to sell excess horses or burros “without limitation.”

 
Myth #2:  Horses are held in crowded “holding pens.”

Fact:  This assertion is false.  The BLM’s short-term holding corrals provide ample space to horses, along with clean feed and water, while long-term holding pastures – large ranches located mainly in Kansas and Oklahoma – permit the horses to roam freely on thousands of acres of grassland.

 
Myth #3:  Since 1971, the BLM has illegally or improperly taken away more than 20 million acres set aside for wild horses and burros (from 53.8 million acres to 33.7 million acres).

Fact:  This claim is false.  No specific amount of acreage was “set aside” for the exclusive use of wild horses and burros under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.  The Act directed the BLM to determine the areas where horses and burros were found roaming, and then to manage the animals within the boundaries of those areas.  Of the 20.1 million acres no longer managed for wild horse and burro use:


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  • 4.6 million acres comprised lands not managed by the BLM where the other landowners were unwilling to make their land available for wild horse and burro use.
  • Of the other 15.5 million acres of land under BLM management:
    • 47.6 percent comprised intermingled land ownerships (for example, "checkerboard" land ownerships created by railroad grants) or areas where the water was not controlled by the BLM, which made management infeasible;
    • 12.5 percent was transferred out of the BLM's administration to other agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service, as a result of Federal legislation;
    • 11.2 percent consisted of areas where no Federal animals were present (that is, the horses present were privately owned, domestic horses that were claimed during the claiming period provided by the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act), or areas with too few animals remaining to allow for effective management;
    • 10.6 percent comprised areas where there were substantial conflicts with other resource values (for example, the presence of threatened and endangered species); 
    • 9.5 percent consisted of lands removed from wild horse and burro use for reasons including Federal court decisions, disease (equine infectious anemia), urban expansion, highway fencing (causing habitat fragmentation), Department of Defense-related land withdrawals, or exchanges transferring land from BLM ownership to other parties; and
    • 8.6 percent comprised areas where a critical habitat component (such as winter range) was missing or the habitat was unsuitable for wild horse and burro use.
 
Myth #4:  The BLM is managing wild horse herds to extinction.

Fact:  This charge is patently false.  The current on-the-range population of wild horses and burros (approximately 38,500) is greater than the number found roaming in 1971 (about 25,300).  The BLM is seeking to achieve the appropriate management level of 26,600 wild horses and burros on Western public rangelands, or nearly 12,000 fewer than the current West-wide population.  The BLM also actively monitors the genetics of each herd by sending genetic samples to Dr. Gus Cothran at Texas A&M University.  Dr. Cothran furnishes the BLM a report on every sample with recommendations for specific herds.

 
Myth #5:  The BLM removes wild horses to make room for more cattle grazing on public rangelands.

Fact:  This claim is totally false.  The removal of wild horses and burros from public rangelands is carried out to ensure rangeland health, in accordance with land-use plans that are developed in an open, public process.  These land-use plans are the means by which the BLM carries out its core mission, which is to manage the land for multiple uses while protecting the land’s resources. Authorized livestock grazing on BLM-managed land has declined by nearly 50 percent since the 1940s; actual (as distinguished from authorized) livestock grazing on public rangelands has declined by 30 percent since 1971.

 
Myth #6:  The BLM lacks the legal authority to gather animals from overpopulated herds or to use helicopters in doing so.

Fact:  This assertion is false.  Section 1333 of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act mandates that once the Interior Secretary "determines...on the basis of all information currently available to him, that an overpopulation exists on a given area of the public lands and that action is necessary to remove excess animals, he shall immediately remove excess animals from the range so as to achieve appropriate management levels."  Section 1338 of the law authorizes the BLM’s use of helicopters and motorized vehicles in its management of wild horses and burros.

 
Myth #7:  Gathers of wild horses by helicopter are inhumane.

Fact:  This claim is false.  The BLM's helicopter-driven gathers are conducted humanely, as affirmed by two recent independent reports (see below), and have proven to be more humane, effective, and efficient than other types of gather methods, such as water trapping, when large numbers of animals need to be removed over wide areas or rugged terrain.  Helicopters start the horses moving in the right direction and then back off one-quarter to one-half mile from the animals to let them travel at their own pace; horses are moved at a more rapid pace only as they reach the entrance to the fenced capture site.  Helicopter pilots are better able to keep mares and foals together than horseback riders; pilots can also more effectively move the animals around such barriers as deep ravines, fences, or roads.

The direct mortality rate resulting from helicopter-driven gathers is usually less than one percent.  In Fiscal Year 2010, the number of direct fatalities (out of more than 11,000 horses and burros gathered) was 0.24 percent (that is, less than one-quarter of one percent of the total number captured).  Some indirect mortality also occurs, usually associated with older horses in poor to very poor condition when gathered.  These already weakened horses, many of which would likely die on the range if not gathered, are examined by staff professionals and veterinarians and are euthanized if they are unlikely to improve or do not respond to treatment.

Two reports issued in the fall of 2010 – one by four independent, credentialed equine professionals and one by the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General – found, without any ideological or political bias, that the BLM’s gathers of wild horses are conducted in a humane manner.  The Inspector General determined that the BLM’s gathers are "justified" and reported that the agency "is doing its best to perform a very difficult job."

 
Myth #8:  If left alone, wild horses will limit their own population.

Fact:  There is absolutely no scientific evidence to support the idea that wild horses will automatically limit their own population.  There were an estimated 25,300 wild horses and burros in 1971, and those numbers rose to a peak of more than 60,000 before the BLM was authorized and able to effectively use helicopters for gathers.  If left unchecked, Mother Nature would regulate the wild horse and burro population through the classic boom-and-bust cycle, where the population increases dramatically, food becomes scarce, and the population crashes through starvation.

 

Myth #9:  The BLM overestimates the number of wild horses and burros on the range.

Fact:  This assertion is false. Currently, most BLM field offices in the West use a "direct count" method that involves the counting of each wild horse and burro actually seen during aerial surveys. This method, the Government Accountability Office concluded in an October 2008 report, results in an undercounting of herd populations.  A new BLM directive, known as an Instruction Memorandum, seeks to correct this undercount by using two principal methods of survey that account for a range of error. The two survey methods, which will be implemented in a multi-step process, are known as "simultaneous double-count" with sightability bias correction and "mark-resight" using photographs.  The new directive, prompted by the GAO report, can be accessed at this link.

 

Myth #10:  The Government Accountability Office, in a report issued in October 2008, found that the BLM has been mismanaging the wild horse and burro program.

Fact:  This claim is completely false.  The GAO made no such finding.  The full report can be accessed here: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d0977.pdf

 
Myth #11:  Wild horses are native to the United States.

Fact:  This claim is false. American wild horses are descended from domestic horses, some of which were brought over by European explorers in the late 15th and 16th centuries, plus others that were imported from Europe and were released or escaped captivity in modern times. These horses have adapted successfully to the Western range, but biologically they did not evolve on the North American continent. The disappearance of the horse from the Western Hemisphere for 10,000 years supports the position that today's wild horses cannot be considered "native" in any meaningful historical sense.

 
Myth #12:  Two million wild horses roamed the United States in the late 1800s/early 1900s.

Fact:  This figure has never been and cannot be substantiated.  In a book titled The Mustangs (1952) by J. Frank Dobie, the author noted that no scientific estimate of wild horse numbers was made in the 19th century or early 20th century.  He went on to write: "All guessed numbers are mournful to history.  My own guess is that at no time were there more than a million mustangs in Texas and no more than a million others scattered over the remainder of the West." (Emphasis added.) Mr. Dobie's admitted "guess" of no more than two million mustangs has over the years been transformed into an asserted "fact" that two million mustangs actually roamed America in the late 1800s/early 1900s.  When it comes to the historical wild horse population, a substantiated and more relevant figure is the number found roaming in 1971, when the BLM was given legal authority to protect and manage wild horses and burros.  That number was 17,300 mustangs (plus 8,045 burros), as compared to today's population of 33,000 wild horses (plus 5,500 burros).

 
Myth #13:  Under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, the BLM is to manage wild horses and burros "principally but not necessarily exclusively" in the areas where they were found roaming at the time of the law's passage.

Fact:   The 1971 language of managing wild horses and burros "principally but not necessarily exclusively" on certain BLM-managed land relates to the Interior Secretary's power to "designate and maintain specific ranges on public lands as sanctuaries for their protection and preservation" -- which are, thus far, the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range (in Montana and Wyoming), the Nevada Wild Horse Range (located within the northcentral portion of Nellis Air Force Range), the Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range (in Colorado), and the Marietta Wild Burro Range (in Nevada).  The "principally but not necessarily exclusively" language applies to specific Wild Horse Ranges, not to Herd Management Areas in general.  The Code of Federal Regulations (43 CFR, Subpart 4710.3-2) states: "Herd management areas may also be designated as wild horse or burro ranges to be managed principally, but not necessarily exclusively, for wild horse or burro herds."

 
Myth #14:  The Code of Federal Regulations (43 CFR) specifies that the BLM is to allocate forage to wild horses and burros in an amount "comparable" to that allocated to wildlife and cattle.

Fact:   The Code of Federal Regulations (43 CFR, Subpart 4700.0-6) states that "Wild horses and burros shall be considered comparably with other resource values in the formulation of land use plans."  This regulation means that in its development of land-use plans, the BLM will consider wild horses and burros in a manner similar to the way it treats other resource values (e.g., cultural, historic, and scenic, as distinguished from authorized commercial land uses, such as livestock grazing or timber harvesting).