“...[W]ild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West...It is the policy of Congress that [they] shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.”
These are the words the US Congress used to describe America’s wild horses and burros in the preamble of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 (WFHBA). Sadly, this mandate has been largely ignored. The National Wild Horse and Burro Program of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and related federal land management policies are so flawed that the long-term survival of these animals is in serious jeopardy, as is the health of the public lands on which they reside.
For decades, America's wild horses have faced tremendous pressure from the government, ranchers, the livestock industry, state wildlife agencies and others who do not support the protection of these iconic animals on Western rangelands. As a result, wild horse and burro populations and their herd areas have dramatically declined in number and size to the point that many herds are no longer self-sustaining and genetically viable. At the same time, livestock, which vastly outnumber horses and burros, remain on the public lands causing serious environmental degradation.
“The wild horse may in fact be an exotic species in Australia, New Zealand, and a few other locations around the world, but it is certainly not so in North America. Horses evolved on this continent only to later disappear, possibly at the hand of man. After what can only be viewed as seconds on the hands of evolution’s clock, the horse was returned by the same hand to resume its place among the same animals and plants with which it had evolved. To label the North American wild horse as an exotic ignores the facts of time and evolutionary history.”
–Into the Wind by Dr. Jay F. Kirkpatrick, 1994
The BLM and other federal or state agencies dealing with wildlife management In the United States often label the modern horse (Equus caballus) as a non‐native, exotic, or even feral species. Neither paleontological opinion nor modern molecular genetics support the notion that horses are not native to America.
Today's wild horses are descendants of escaped or abandoned horses introduced to North America by Spanish conquistadors and settlers, beginning in 1519, after horses had disappeared from the North American continent 13,000–11,000 years earlier. Recent fossil evidence indicates horses evolved in North America to a form that is essentially like the wild horses of today. Labeling horses as non-native is not scientific and serves merely as a convenient excuse for pushing wild horses aside in favor of competing commercial interests.
To AWI, the answer is plain: The mandate of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act should be carried out. Wild horses need less intervention by the BLM, more non-lethal management when necessary, and more freedom to roam their legal and traditional ranges. For more on this issue and what steps the BLM should take to fulfill its obligations under the WFHBA, please see AWI’s Managing for Extinction brochure.