Wild Horse and Burro Myths and Facts

Stakeholders and the general public have diverse opinions on how wild horses and burros should be managed by the BLM, both on the range and after wild horses and burros have been removed from the range.  Below is a collection of some common myths on how BLM manages these animals, and the facts that should be considered when forming an opinion.  

The Wild Horse and Burro Information Center is a good resource for further questions: 866-468-7826 or wildhorse@blm.gov.  

MYTH #1: A report issued in June 2013 by a 14-member research committee of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recommended that the BLM stop gathering wild horses and burros from Western public rangelands and let nature cull any excess herds.


These characterizations are completely erroneous. NAS's Board on Agricultural and Natural Resources (BANR), which oversees the academy's natural resource studies, issued a special-edition newsletter in July 2013 that said: "Some news accounts have incorrectly reported that the study found that the Bureau should stop gathers and 'let nature cull any excess herds.' In fact, the report recommends more intensive management of the horses and burros...." BANR then cited several management measures recommended by the report, including using scientifically rigorous methods to estimate the number of animals on the range; modeling the effects of management actions, such as the use of fertility-control treatments on mares and stallions and the removal of animals through gathers, on wild horse and burro health; and, following gathers, using the available one-year fertility-control vaccine (known as PZP) more widely and consistently to treat some mares.

The report itself, titled "Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward" (which can be accessed at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/13511/using-science-to-improve-the-blm-wild-h...) makes it clear that to "let nature cull any excess herds" is not a viable option. The preface to the report, which does challenge the status quo of wild horse management, goes on to say in the very next sentence: "It is equally evident that the consequences of simply letting horse populations, which increase at a mean annual rate approaching 20 percent, expand to the level of 'self-limitation'—bringing suffering and death due to disease, dehydration, and starvation accompanied by degradation of the land—are also unacceptable."

MYTH #2: It is the BLM's policy to sell or send wild horses to slaughter.


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 it has been and remains the policy of the BLM not to sell or send wild horses or burros to slaughter. Consequently, as noted in a report issued in October 2008, the Government Accountability Office found the BLM not in compliance with a December 2004 amendment (the so-called Burns Amendment to the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act) that directs the Bureau to sell excess (unadopted or unsold) horses or burros “without limitation" to any willing buyer. The bill of sale, among other things, states that the buyer agrees not to process any of the sold horses or burros into commercial products, or to knowingly sell or transfer ownership to any person or organization whose intent is to commercially process the animals.

MYTH #3: Horses are held in crowded “holding pens.”


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 hundreds of thousands of acres of grassland.

MYTH #4: 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 31.6 million acres).


This claim is false. No specific amount of acreage was “set aside” for the exclusive or principal use by 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 to manage them "in a manner that is designed to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands." The law also stipulated in Section 1339 that "Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize the [Interior] Secretary to relocate wild free-roaming horses or burros to areas of the public lands where they do not presently exist." Of the 22.2 million acres no longer managed for wild horse and burro use:

  • 6.7 million acres were never under BLM management. Of the 15.5 million other acres of land under BLM management:
  • 48.6 percent (7,522,100 acres) were intermingled ("checkerboard") land ownerships or areas where water was not owned or controlled by the BLM, which made management infeasible;
  • 13.5 percent (2,091,709 acres) were lands transferred out of the BLM's ownership to other agencies, both Federal and state through legislation or exchange;
  • 10.6 percent (1,645,758 acres) were lands where there were substantial conflicts with other resource values (such as the need to protect habitat for desert tortoise);
  • 9.7 percent (1,512,179 acres) were lands removed from wild horse and burro use through court decisions; urban expansion; highway fencing (causing habitat fragmentation); and land withdrawals;
  • 9.6 percent (1,485,068 acres) were lands where no BLM animals were present at the time of the passage of the 1971 Act or places where all animals were claimed as private property. These lands in future land-use plans will be subtracted from the BLM totals as they should never have been designated as lands where herds were found roaming; and
  • 8.0 percent (1,240,894 acres) were lands where a critical habitat component (such as winter range) was missing, making the land unsuitable for wild horse and burro use, or areas that had too few animals to allow for effective management.
  • (The percentages above were current as of July 25, 2011.)
MYTH #5: The BLM is managing wild horse herds to extinction.


This charge is patently false. The on-range population of wild horses and burros is three times greater than the number found roaming in 1971 (about 25,300). The BLM is seeking to achieve the Appropriate Management Level of 26,690 wild horses and burros on Western public rangelands. The BLM monitors the genetic diversity of each herd through collection of hair samples during gather operations. Under an assistance agreement, researchers at Texas A&M University analyze the samples and reports recommendations to the BLM for specific herds.

MYTH #6: The BLM removes wild horses to make room for more cattle grazing on public rangelands.


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. Since the Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, livestock grazing across all BLM-managed lands has declined by about 31 percent, from 12.2 million livestock AUMs in 1971 to 8.4 million AUMs in 2022. 

MYTH #7: The BLM lacks the legal authority to gather animals from overpopulated herds or to use helicopters in doing so.


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 #8: Gathers of wild horses by helicopter are inhumane.


The claim that gathers are inhumane is false. The BLM's helicopter-assisted gathers are conducted humanely, as most recently affirmed by a peer-reviewed scientific review of BLM gathers, as reported in The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care. BLM gathers have proven to be more humane, effective, and efficient than other types of gather methods when large numbers of animals need to be removed over wide areas or rugged terrain, and they lead to lower rates of injury and mortality than comparable capture operations for native big game species. Helicopters start the horses moving in the right direction and then back off sometimes 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 when they need to be turned or as they reach the entrance to the 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.

MYTH #9: If left alone, wild horses will automatically balance their reproduction rate with rangeland conditions


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, 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 or dehydration.

MYTH #10: The BLM overestimates the number of wild horses and burros on the range.

FACT #10

This assertion is false. In its June 2013 report ("Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward"), the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) concluded that the BLM's "direct count" aerial survey method has resulted in population undercounts of 20 percent to 30 percent because it does not account for undetected animals. To more accurately estimate population size, the BLM applied the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) population survey methods in 2014, consisting of the use of "simultaneous double-count" and "photographic mark-resight" methods commonly used to survey wildlife populations. The BLM will continue to survey one-third of all 177 Herd Management Areas annually, on a rolling basis, using the USGS methods, as recommended by NAS.

MYTH #11: 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 #11

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 #12: BLM should leave wild horse herds alone because they are native to the United States. 

FACT #12

The BLM is required by law to manage wild horses, as an integral part of the natural system, regardless of their ancestry. The BLM’s management of wild horses and burros on public lands follows requirements of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. Although it may be interesting from a scientific perspective, the evolutionary history of horses does not influence the BLM’s wild horse management. Caballine horses did evolve in North America, but paleontological evidence shows that they died out in the area of the lower 48 states around the end of the last ice age. Horses may even have persisted in the Yukon region a few thousand years longer, but eventually they died out there, too. All available, credible evidence indicates that the free-roaming horses in North America today are the direct descendants of domesticated horses, which do have some genomic differences compared to ancestral horses that lived in Eurasia before domestication. Since the 1500s, these free-roaming horses (and burros) have thrived in arid lands of what is now the Western United States. Some ancestors of today’s wild horses came with Europeans in the late 15th and 16th centuries, but most wild horses alive today in the Western US have far stronger genetic connections to breeds that were released or escaped captivity in the 19th or 20th centuries. Even though many biologists would call these wild and free-roaming animals ‘feral horses’ because they descend from domesticated ancestors, the BLM always refers to them as wild horses because the Congress defined them that way. The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act protects populations of wild horses and burros, and BLM personnel honor and take seriously their obligations to steward these herds and the lands they rely on. 

MYTH #13: Two million wild horses roamed the United States in the late 1800s/early 1900s.

FACT #13

This figure has no scientific basis. In a book titled The Mustangs (1952) by J. Frank Dobie, the historian 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 or assumed "fact" that two million mustangs actually roamed America in the late 1800s/early 1900s. When Congress assigned the BLM (and the U.S. Forest Service) to manage wild horses and burros in 1971 -- through passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act -- the BLM's population survey methods indicated a population of 17,300 wild horses and 8,045 burros (=25,345 total), as compared to the 2022 estimated population of 82,000 wild horses and burros.

MYTH #14: Under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, BLM-administered public lands where wild horses and burros were found roaming in 1971 are to be managed "principally but not necessarily exclusively" for the welfare of these animals.

FACT #14

The law's language stating that public ranges where wild horses and burros were found roaming in 1971 may be managed "principally but not necessarily exclusively" for the welfare of these animals refers 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 #15: 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 #15

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, wildlife, and scenic, as distinguished from authorized commercial land uses, such as livestock grazing or timber harvesting).

MYTH #16: Compensatory population growth invalidates gathers as an effective management tool for wild horses and burros. 

FACT #16

The BLM is aware that, when at lower densities, higher availability of resources may cause populations of wild horses to increase at a slightly more rapid rate. This can happen if a gather reduces herd sizes so much that it causes an increase in foaling rates. However, in most wild horse herds, pregnancy rates, foaling rates, and foal survival rates are already very high even when population sizes are several times greater than appropriate management levels. It is not unusual for 90% of mares to be pregnant, and for mares to start breeding as young as 1 year old. So under most conditions, the expected increase in the number of foals per mare after a gather would be relatively low.  Nonetheless, the BLM can help mitigate this effect by treating mares returned to the range with fertility control, and this is something the agency is increasingly doing. Despite low levels of compensatory population growth that can follow a gather, the BLM must still manage wild horse and burro populations to prevent overpopulation and protect land and herd health.