11 min read

U.S. Is Killing Wild Horses For The Worst Reason

This has got to stop.

The wild horses ran for their lives as noisy helicopters chased after them. The helicopters dipped down low and nearly clipped the horses’ heads. The terrified animals were so focused on galloping away that some of them didn’t see the barbed wire fence that suddenly emerged in their path, and they toppled headfirst over the fence, crashing hard into the ground.

This was the scene an observer with the American Wild Horse Campaign watched on Tuesday at the Bible Springs Complex and the Sulphur Herd Management Area (HMA) in Southern Utah, two areas designated as public lands. This week, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a U.S. government agency, was trying to round up and remove up to 250 wild horses from these areas — but for the worst reason.

Helicopter chasing wild horse
American Wild Horse Campaign

There are currently around 70,000 wild horses in the U.S., and they’re technically protected under federal law. However, the BLM believes there are too many wild horses running through public lands, and that they’re overgrazing and destroying the environment. Yet animal welfare advocates believe the BLM’s real reason for getting rid of horses is to make room for cattle.  

“Wild horses eat grass and cattle eat grass,” Grace Kuhn, communications director for the American Wild Horse Campaign, told The Dodo. “But livestock brings in the money. Wild horses don’t.”

Helicopters rounding up wild horses
American Wild Horse Campaign

The way the BLM captures horses is very concerning to Kuhn.

“Helicopters stampede the horses from miles,” Kuhn said. “Then they funnel them into this area, and let go what they call a Judas horse — a trained domestic horse who has a harness. Horses are herd animals, so they follow the lead animal into wherever. So it’s tricking the horses by leading them into the trap.”

The helicopters would be particularly stressful to the horses.

Horses leaping over barbed wire fence
Wild horses trying to leap over barbed wire fence | American Wild Horse Campaign

“These horses are wild animals, so they’ve lived their entire lives out there,” Kuhn said. “Then you bring these scary objects — I don’t know if you’ve ever been around a helicopter, but they’re very loud and they [the horses] don’t know what it is.”

“They’re terrified ... and they get separated immediately,” Kuhn added. “Stallions are separated from mares, and mares are separated from the babies. And you can hear them oftentimes screaming for each other.”

While the helicopters are technically allowed to be used in the roundups, the helicopters can’t touch the horses. However, this has happened in the past, and Kuhn labels these incidents as “blatant animal abuse.”

Horse falling over barbed wire
A horse falling over a barbed wire fence | American Wild Horse Campaign

“They [the helicopters] are supposed to come in and back off, come in and back off,” Kuhn said. “It’s part of the comprehensive animal welfare policy that they’re supposed to follow.”

What’s more, the BLM intentionally tries to separate the stallions from the rest of their families, and place the stallions in one enclosure together. But this creates issues since the stallions aren’t familiar with each other. In the wild, a mature stallion will lead a herd of mares and babies and stallions are often highly competitive with each other.

Wild horses in holding facility
American Wild Horse Campaign

“This is where injuries happen,” Kuhn said. “You get really, really stressed horses, and you have multiple roundups where horses break their necks from running into panels because they’re so stressed. You see them jumping out to get away. It’s heartbreaking, and I think it’s a terrifying thing for a wild horse.”

After being rounded up, wild horses are usually sent to holding facilities, which Kuhn describes as “small, crowded pens” similar to cattle feedlots. While these facilities are meant to be “short-term,” horses often stay at these facilities for three or four years.

“Adoption rates are very, very low,” Kuhn said. “For domestic horses, the adoption market is saturated … but then you compound that with wild horses, and they’re a harder sell.”

Wild horses in short term holding facility
Wild horses in a short-term holding facility | American Wild Horse Campaign

In the past, the BLM would send horses to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico, although this practice was eventually stopped. And last year, a House of Representatives committee voted to permit the BLM to shoot or lethally inject as many as 90,000 “excess” wild horses and burros. Thankfully, this plan never came to fruition, and the horses remain in holding facilities — however, animal advocates continue to worry about the future for wild horses.

While no horses were killed at the roundup on Tuesday, the BLM reported that four horses died during other roundups in Utah this week.

Wild horses in a short-term holding facility
Wild horses in a short-term holding facility | American Wild Horse Campaign

“One horse came in with what they said was a nasal issue … and was having a hard time breathing,” Kuhn said. “We always say that’s a byproduct of the roundup. That horse was fine living on public lands, but when they’re stampeded, and they have a nasal issue, whether it’s a broken nose or whatever … they’re in distress.”

Another horse was killed for having a clubbed foot, and yet another for being blind. The fourth horse was euthanized for having a broken shoulder, and Kuhn believes it’s possible the horse injured himself during the roundup.

“That does happen when they get rounded up into these corrals,” Kuhn said. “They’re wild animals, and when they’re all very stressed out ... anything can happen.”

Group of wild horses
American Wild Horse Campaign

The BLM did not immediately respond to The Dodo’s request for comment.

In Kuhn’s opinion, the best way to prevent wild horse populations from getting out of control is to use safe and humane fertility control, and to make sure the horses’ natural predators are protected.

“The BLM always says, ‘Wild horses don’t have natural predators,’ but they do,” Kuhn said. “There are countless studies that say that mountain lions will take out foals. It’s not the most glamorous thing, but it’s how we balance an ecosystem. Predators are so important to an ecosystem, but when you have livestock grazing on public lands, they kill off the predators … like wolves and bears and lions and coyotes.”

Wild horses in a short-term holding facility
Wild horses in a short-term holding facility | American Wild Horse Campaign

Of course, another solution is to cut down on cattle grazing, Kuhn said.

At the moment, the BLM in Utah allows only 1,956 wild horses and burros to live on 2.5 million acres of public land, which works out to be about one horse for every 1,278 acres, Kuhn explained. On the other hand, the BLM allows approximately 108,300 cows or calf pairs on 22 million acres on public land in Utah. That’s about 203 acres per cow or calf pair.

Group of wild horses
American Wild Horse Campaign

“There’s overwhelmingly more livestock on our public lands than there are wild horses, and overwhelmingly more livestock in wild horse habitat than there are wild horses,” she said.

“The government's failed and inhumane program doesn't have to be this way,” Kuhn added. “There are proven humane solutions that can implemented today to help control wild horse populations numbers and keep wild horses wild — and free.”

To help wild horses in the U.S., you can make a donation to the American Wild Horse Campaign.