As mentioned in a previous post, "wild horse" is a loosely used term. These horses are descendants of horses that escaped domestication, so technically they are feral horses, but the term wild horses is usually the one used. Wild horses are found throughout the western United States. While researching them, I was surprised by just how many there are. Many are found on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, and the BLM has an extensive Wild Horse and Burro Program to manage them.
The BLM has designated 270 Herd Management Areas (HMA) in ten western states. Click on the map above to see a larger version. Each HMA has different objectives about type of horse to be managed for and size of the herd. These HMAs support approximately 33,000 wild horses and burros (BLM Fact Sheet). According to the BLM, this is 5,700 more wild horses and burros than can coexist with the other uses on those public lands, including grazing by native species like elk and deer.
According to the BLM specialist I talked to, the wild horse populations often increase about 25% each year--so in about four years the herd can double in size. About every two to four years, the BLM or a contractor goes out to do a roundup to decrease the herd size. Without these roundups, the wild horses would simply overpopulate an area and there wouldn't be enough feed. The roundups bring wild horses to town so that they can be adopted.
Roundups are rather complicated, expensive operations. A holding corral needs to be set up so that the horses that have been captured have a safe place to stay until trucks come to take them away. A helicopter is often used to do the roundup. It places metal gates in a semi-circle, then adds wings to the semicircle, making a wide chute so that the horses will run down the chute and then be trapped in the semicircle. As the helicopter starts moving the wild horses towards the chute, a couple domestic horses will lead the way, and wild horses will follow them in. The gates are closed, and the wild horses are loaded onto trailers and taken to the holding corral, where they are separated by sex.
These are some of the extra gates that can be used for the corral that the helicopter sets up. The cost for managing the BLM wild horse and burro project in fiscal year 2007 was more than $38 million (BLM fact sheet).
Here are some of the beautiful horses that have been captured. They are part of the Sulphur Herd Management Area, and apparently have quite a bit of Spanish blood in them. This makes them highly desired by some buyers, partly because only three wild herds have this characteristic. This Spanish blood is traced back to horses that the first Spanish explorers brought with them in the 1500s.
The horses in this herd come in a variety of colors, from dun, buckskin, grulla, bay, black, sorrel, palomino, and various roans (blue, strawberry, red).
Other characteristics include ears that curve in like a bird's beak, a dorsal stripe, bi-colored mane and tail, tiger-striped legs, and occasional chest barring (BLM info sheet).
This foal started drinking off any mare that would let her. Many of the mares and foals had paired up after an evening in the holding corral, but a couple still were wandering about.
Here's the hay truck to keep the horses well fed. By yesterday morning they had gathered more than 200 wild horses. The desired herd size is 135-180, so clearly the population is far above what it should be. The BLM specialist estimated that more than 500 might be in the HMA.
The horses will be taken to an adoption facility, where they will be checked out by a veterinarian, given vaccinations, dewormed, and have a blood sample taken. Some of the horses will be chosen to be returned to the herd to maintain the genetic characteristics that are deemed desirable. The others will be prepared for adoption, which will occur about a month after they've been captured.
According to the BLM specialist, only about 50-60% of the young horses will be adopted at the first facility. The ones that are left will be shipped further east, and eventually most of the horses from this herd are adopted. Extra horses from other herds are often not so fortunate.
Thinking about the number of horses in just this one herd management area roundup multiplied by the numerous herd management areas boggles my mind. There are a lot of horses up for adoption every year, and the number won't slow down any time soon. The number of people adopting horses has decreased for a number of reasons: higher fuel and feed costs, urban sprawl, and many horse lovers already have as many horses as they can afford.
What happens to the left over horses? Some are offered for sale, while others are taken to BLM long-term holding facilities, where our tax dollars go to pay for these horses to graze on public lands until they die, usually 10 to 25 years after they are placed there. So many horses are being taken to these areas that the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program has the majority of its budget going to these holding facilities, which means less money going for the roundups and adoptions. If wild horses aren't rounded up, major ecological damage will result, with water holes trampled, insufficient feed for native animals, and excessive erosion. Nevertheless, the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act puts many limitations on what can be done with wild horses. This is a situation that needs some more attention and creative answers.