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  • Erin Long

Save The Mustangs?

Today I wanted to talk a little bit about the current mustang crisis, and yes, it is absolutely a crisis. In order to do so, however, you have to understand the history of the American Mustang.

Contrary to popular belief, mustangs are NOT "wild horses". The last wild animals of the "Equus" name native to North America died out ~12,000 years ago. The Mustangs we know today are feral horses, as they descended primarily from Iberian horses brought to this continent by the Spanish. Even their original name, "mustengo" means "stray horse" in Spanish. Thus, today's mustangs are actually an invasive species, not some majestic "part of the land" or "has always been there" species.

Currently, mustangs (and burros) range over a vast area of public and private land, for which the current Appropriate Management Level (AML) stands at approximately 26,000 horses and burros. You may have noticed the "and private land" portion of the previous sentence, and it's true. Mustangs are supported in a large way by private grazing and water access, which could be taken away completely legally at any moment. This is just one of the problems the feral equids currently face.

I want to take a look at that AML for a moment - 26,000 horses and burros can be supported by the land they currently roam, which includes private land they may lose. The current wild horse and burro population, based on the most recent census, ON THE RANGE is nearly 70,000. This doesn't even touch the additional >45,000 horses in holding pens. On the range alone, there are nearly triple the number of horses the land can adequately support and maintain a healthy ecosystem.


A few solutions have been posed to this problem. First, the sterilization of mustang mares. Unfortunately, this plan was shot down by animal rights activists because it "interferes with natural behaviors", and also because they claimed it was inhumane. However, they also placed lawsuits in action to prevent even research being done to find more humane alternatives to mare sterilization. (Note: stud sterilization does effectively nothing for population control, as one stud can cover dozens of mares).

A second solution was the one most of us know about - adoption. Let's look at the numbers for that for a second. The total on-range feral Equid population in 2015 was ~58,000, and the total in holding was ~46,000. That means a total population of ~104,000. The 2016 total population between holding and on-range is ~115,000. In the 2015 fiscal year, there were <3,000 horses adopted out or sold. Less than 7% of the difference between the current AML and the current population. People often say "well why can't they just hold them until they're adopted?"  Well, a few reasons. 1) Each horse costs ~$50,000 to maintain for their entire lifetime, which a vast majority would have to be given adoption rates, which would cost billions of dollars. 2) The population is still expanding at 10-20% per year. At that rate, the holding facilities will rapidly fill up, and the horses will have literally nowhere to go.

A third solution was the unrestricted sale of these animals, a vast majority of which would likely go to kill buyers, and as horse slaughter is currently illegal in the US, they would have to endure a long trailer ride to Mexico or Canada where they would be slaughtered inhumanely (please see my post on legalizing horse slaughter in the US for more info).

So we arrive at the recent controversial decision. The BLM Advisory Board voted to recommend euthanasia of a vast majority of the horses currently in holding. Understandably, this has people up in arms, but as I've illustrated above, we're rapidly running out of viable alternatives. The BLM Advisory Board did not want to sell the horses to kill buyers (as they legally could) so that they could sit in a cramped trailer to Mexico before being slaughtered, many dying along the way. They also recognize, unlike many of those protesting from their heart rather than from their mind, that this euthanasia is legally impossible right now. The current legislation governing the care of wild horses prevents euthanasia of healthy animals in holding.


This recommendation was made far more as a statement to highlight the absolute crisis state than it is a concrete plan. To those protesting this decision and saying truly hateful things about those at the BLM, I encourage you to either do something about the situation, or quiet down. Just stopping these horses' euthanasia does nothing to correct the massive underlying problems facing them. The BLM is more than happy to hear VIABLE solutions to this crisis, but at this point this is the only one that has a hope of truly correcting the problem. Please feel free to leave questions or comments below!

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Parker, CO 80134

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