Dwindling Space

In the early 1900s, two million horses roamed wild in North America. But that time exists only in the pages of our history books. Progress has reduced the mustang's range today, replacing grassland with farms, ranches, roads, and cities. The remaining mustangs now run through publicly-owned lands and on private sanctuaries set aside for them — small corners of the range they once reigned.

Attribution: Leslie Blue7, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In this section, you can examine the dilemma humans and horses alike face in today's changing world.

Wild horses are the focus of much controversy today. Progress and urban sprawl force the hand of decision makers in communities across the country each day.

By the end of the 19th century, civilization had pushed wild horse herds into the most desolate and rugged regions of the west. The Nevada desert became the true home of the wild horse. Interbreeding with horses of ranchers, miners, and pioneers, wild horses belonged to no one and everyone.

In frontier days ranchers respected mustangs for their speed and their stamina. They captured the finest stallions and mares to breed with their domestic stock. But by the 1920s, tractors began replacing horses on American farms. No longer a resource, the wild horse became a pest and a nuisance, seemingly of use to no one. In the 1930s, the U.S. Government authorized the removal of wild horses from the public range. Wild horses were killed in large numbers.

Once two million mustangs roamed the American west. Soon there would be fewer than 17,000. Dawn Lappin laments the results,

"So they'd be gathered up and sent to slaughter and, of course, it made a lot of money. At the time, the hanging weight of horses was somewhere around 10 cents a pound, but if you gathered 2 to 300 horses at a time and took them to slaughter, you could make yourself a tidy bit of change."

Few people knew or cared about the slaughter. But that was about to change with the crusade of a rancher's wife named Velma Johnston, whose father had taught her to love horses. In her later life, the sight of reinforced corrals where horses were brutally treated saddened her and aroused her anger. Her enemies derisively gave her a name she now proudly bears, "Wild Horse Annie".

Attribution: Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington from Portland, America, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1950s, America finally woke up to humane treatment of these animals thanks in part to "Wild Horse Annie", who took their cause to those who could make a difference. The mustangers long-running brutality and disregard for humane treatment of the wild horse propelled a movement to protect those remaining. Annie changed national policy through inspiring a grassroots campaign.

Kids were her not-so-secret weapon, and their efforts changed national law. Schoolchildren wrote thousands of letters to Congress on behalf of the wild horse. One typical letter read:

"Dear Wild Horse Annie,

Today I read your news bulletin about the wild horses. When I saw those pictures, I started crying. How can people be so cruel? Why can't we let the wild ones go their own way? Why can't we let them roam free in body and in spirit? Please, Annie, I'm only 11, but I want to help."

In 1971, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act that proclaimed that mustangs are "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West and shall be protected from harassment or death."

"Wild Horse Annie" died in 1977, leaving behind a growing controversy about the place of the wild horse in the American west. Today an estimated 39,000 mustangs still roam federally managed lands in the west. The Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management has stepped up to help manage the mustangs. Capturing thousands of the horses each year and making them available for adoption by citizens prevents the herds from overwhelming the rangeland. More than 140,000 wild horses and burros have been adopted throughout the United States since 1973. But wild horses remain a controversial topic as we enter the millennium.


Reno, Nevada, one of the fastest growing cities in America, has encroached on the range of the Nevada wild horse herds. The wild horses of the desert find themselves living in the suburbs amidst paved highways, stockade fences, and swing sets. Their once naturally pristine landscape is now riddled with man's burgeoning suburbs, power lines, and traffic.

Some of the citizens of Reno are enchanted with wild horses. But not everyone loves the them wandering the shared domain. Some people build walls and put up fences to keep them out. Dawn Lappin has lived in Reno all her life, and she's seen what happens when the modern world collides with the spirit of the mustang. She sees the potential for more problems down the road.

Attribution: Tatlayoko, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Animal activists lobby for more land in protected refuges, fewer cattle on federal lands, and more habitat for the horses. Ranchers are their opponents. Some environmentalists fight to have the number of wild horse herds drastically reduced, pointing out that feral animals compete with and limit the growth of natural species, like big horn sheep, elk, and deer. Developers and homeowners worry that the wild horses will injure someone as they continue to graze suburbs now inhabited by burgeoning subdivisions and strip malls.

The concerns are not totally unfounded, and very real problems do exist for the horses themselves. Wild horses are now protected from human hunters, eliminating their greatest predator. Other than an occasional mountain lion attack, there are no longer any natural predators. If not controlled, the mustang herds could grow so big they would overwhelm their range. As housing developments continue to spread into horse country. wild horses could be vulnerable to starvation, thirst, and disease, crowd out other wildlife, use up much needed resources by rancher's herds, and cause even more problems.

Clearly the problem is an ongoing one. The arguments from all sides have basis in fact and are complex and multifaceted. The solution can only be approached from a variety of perspectives. There are many options for the future management of this admirable animal, some already implemented and others planned for the future.

Man has accomplished a great deal in partnership with these creatures of beauty and grace, and the horse has contributed significantly to the settling, securing, and flourishing of this country. After examining the history of man's relationship with the horse and the current problems they face from a myriad of perspectives, we may better understand the necessity of preserving this icon of our past, insuring them the dignity and freedom they require to survive today.

Ecological Checks and Balances

Habitat is very important to wild horses, burros, and domestic livestock. Because wild horses and burros no longer have any natural predators, other than an occasional mountain lion, herds increase at relatively high rates. Populations generally rise about 18-20% per year. In years of adverse weather and poor forage conditions, the growth rate may decline to as low as 5%, but in good years it may be as high as 40%.

Attribution: Rennett Stowe from USA, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When populations of wild horses, wild burros, or domestic livestock exceed the capabilities of their habitat, the environment begins to decline, and there is no longer a thriving natural ecological balance. Ranchers must remove excess livestock, and state government officials must remove excess wildlife. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conducts the removal of wild horses and burros from public lands. Their removal is based on years of monitoring the habitat and observations of the herd.

If the decline is prolonged, it leads to poor rangeland health and accelerates a decrease in the health of the animals. Therefore, the BLM annually monitors the condition of the animals and their habitat. The BLM will also periodically count wild horses and burros. Resource specialists from other disciplines also monitor the rangelands. The BLM assesses the monitoring and census data and determines if and how many animals must be removed from the range. If this is not done, the consequences to the herds can be injury or death from starvation, dehydration, or susceptibility to the elements. When the BLM determines that there are too many wild horses or burros, a "gather plan" and environmental analysis is prepared, and the public is invited to comment.

Animals are normally gathered using helicopters and herded into portable traps. Excess animals may also be caught in traps using food or water as bait. To protect the animals, stallions are separated from the mares, and if need be, weaned foals are separated from larger animals. The BLM maintains very strict requirements about gathering wild horses and burros. But what happens after they are gathered?

Continued: Potential Solutions