Behind the Stories

Wild horses, or mustangs, come with a lot of controversy these days. The agency charged with their management is caught in the middle of a political and public affairs crisis as the current administration moves to cut the BLM wild horse budget. If this happens, the fate of up to nearly 50,000 horses and burros currently fed by the government in holding corrals or off-range pastures is uncertain. Advocates fight for solutions that won't lead to euthanasia or possibly slaughter, but their voices compete with nearly $50 million taxpayer dollars spent on maintaining the horses.

Currently, about 75,000 horses roam free on designated grazing areas around the West; these are called HMAs (Horse Management Areas). That's about three times the number originally set forth by Congress in 1971 under the Wild Horse and Burro Act, designed to protect the herds from abuse and extinction. The Act came about after Velma Bronn Johnston, a horse lover from Nevada, spent nearly twenty years campaigning to gain protections for mustangs after she had witnessed horrible abuses of the animals in gathering practices across the state by profiteers who then sold the animals for slaughter.

After decades of protection, the herds have produced more horses than the land can hold. At the same time, BLM-sponsored adoptions have declined dramatically, resulting in over-crowding and what amounts to off-range feedlots for the overflow of horses. With so many sides to this issue, it is incomprehensible to imagine an outcome that will satisfy everyone. Cattle producers want more land for grazing cows; wildlife advocates don't want cows or horses taking up more habitat; and animal advocates think horses deserve more ground.

In Idaho, the Bureau of Land Management currently runs six HMAs across the state. Each HMA has a set amount of horses allowed per acre within the designated area. In 2017, the total number of wild horses in the state hovers around 700 head, spread over 418,000 acres of open land. Two of the HMAs were temporarily closed after the Soda Fire of 2015 raged through the Owyhee rangeland. The horses who survived that fire were gathered and placed in off-range holding corrals. The BLM hopes to return the set amount of horses to those HMAs when the land has recovered enough to provide feed.

Exploring this subject has been both interesting, enlightening, and difficult. From the perspective of an observer, I will say that watching the wild herds up close is impressive and moving. Even though they look like domestic horses, their behavior is most definitely of a wild nature; the studs jockey for dominance, while the mares protect and rear their young in a land that can be harsh and unforgiving. Decades of natural selection have culled the weak and truly made these horses strong and resilient, and yes, proud.

In Wild Horses, the Outdoor Idaho crew visits the herds and talks to the stakeholders as we examine the current state of mustangs in Idaho, and beyond.

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