Nevada's Wild Horses

Wild Horses, Symbols of the West, Kicking Up Controversy

A group of wild horses walk through a field July 7, 2005 in Eureka, Nevada. The Bureau of Land Management is gathering wild horses in the American West, where an estimated 37,000 wild horses roam free. Many of the horses that are gathered are put up for adoption while others are treated with birth control and released back to the wild.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

This article focuses on the subject of wild horses in the West, particularly in Nevada. At issue is the steady increase in the population of these animals and what should be done to maintain both healthy horses and the public land ranges upon which they roam. The rules and regulations for dealing with wild horses are spelled out in The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 (and subsequent amendments in 1976, 1978, and 2004).

The primary federal agency dealing with wild horses and burros on public land is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an arm of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The BLM State Office for Nevada is located at 1340 Financial Blvd., Reno NV 89502. Office hours are 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. The information phone number is (775) 861-6400. Some of the information for this story was provided by Susie Stokke, Wild Horse & Burro Program Lead for BLM Nevada, Resources Division.

Too Many Wild Horses

This is a complicated issue with lots of moving parts and competing interests. The BLM is required to manage the horses and range as mandated by the 1971 law and its amendments. In brief, that means keeping the number of horses balanced with competing uses such as cattle grazing so that the health of both horses and the range is not compromised. According to BLM, there too many horses out there and things are out of whack.

A BLM Factsheet issued June 30, 2008 states that there are approximately 33,000 wild horses and burros (29,500 horses, 3,500 burros) on lands administered by the BLM in Western states. Nevada is home to about half of these animals. BLM has identified 27,300 as the number of horses and burros that can live on its managed lands in balance with other concurrent uses (grazing, wildlife, mining, recreation, etc.).

This number is called the appropriate management level (AML). Nationwide, there are about 5,700 too many animals loose on the range. Stokke said that the AML in Nevada is 13,098, with the population 23% above that at 16,143 (as of February, 2008).

BLM provides for excess animals removed from the range in both short-term and long-term holding facilities. There are more than 30,000 horses and burros currently being fed and cared for at numerous locations, including the Palomino Valley National Adoption Center north of Sparks, Nevada. In fiscal year 2007, BLM spent $21.9 million of its $38.8 wild horse and burro budget just on maintaining the animals at these holding facilities. Figures provided in the recent BLM Factsheet estimate costs will double to $77 million by 2012 if existing management practices are carried forth. Since such funding is highly unlikely to materialize, BLM will have to make some difficult choices, with no alternative particularly appealing or pleasant.

Wild Horse Adoptions Declining

Providing horses and burros for adoption is a primary method of moving excess animals off the range and into private care. While the BLM adoption program is still going strong, the numbers are no longer working.

In 2007, 7,726 animals were rounded up and 4,772 were adopted. Considering that wild horses and burros can double their herd size every four years, and they have no natural predators except for mountain lions in a few scattered places around Nevada, it's not hard to see how these numbers are going to become further askew unless something is done.

Stokke said adoptions have been declining for years, with the last two years going down at an accelerating rate. So far in 2008, the rate is only half the goal required to achieve the AML being aimed for by BLM. She said that, for a number of reason such as changing demographics and rising costs, the demand simply isn't there.

Changing Demographics, Rising Costs

Keeping horses is not cheap. According to Stokke, the six tons of hay a horse requires per year cost $900 in 2007.

In 2008, it will be $1920. Add in other costs like feed grain, vet bills, riding tack, truck and trailer, pasture and barn, boarding (if you don't live in the country), and you've got a mighty expensive animal. The price alone prevents many people from adopting, and there are aren't as many people even interested as there were a few years ago. As society becomes urbanized, the number of people with horses as part of their culture diminishes. Urbanization also paves over spaces around the fringes of cities where open space, pastures, and farms once existed. There just aren't as many places for horses to be.

BLM tries to match adoptions with those places that still have a significant horse culture. Nevada is one of them, but urban sprawl has had a negative effect, and there aren't many people here. Others include Texas, Wyoming, California, and Wisconsin.

Another factor Stokke pointed out is the general decline of the horse industry. When times are tough, many people who kept horses, whether wild mustangs or not, can simply no longer afford to do so. At the Palomino Valley facility north of Sparks, she said nine burros have been returned this year, with people citing economic difficulties for why they cannot keep the animals.

Possible Wild Horse Solutions

"In the end, we need 33,000 good homes. If we can't find them, we only have a few options. These are very tough decisions," said Stokke, referring to the horses already in holding facilities.

One option is to stop gathering horses off the range, thereby halting the accumulation of animals in holding facilities and the rising price of keeping them there. BLM Deputy Director Henri Bisson, in a recent story in the Reno Gazette-Journal, said stopping roundups would result in severe damage to rangelands and the starvation of many horses.

"To me, the most inhumane thing would be to see these animals suffer and die slowly on the range. It's a cruel death," said Stokke. It would also violate the mandate contained in the 1971 law requiring BLM to maintain and protect healthy horses on healthy land. A combination of adoptions and euthanasia is something that needs to be considered, Bisson said to the Associated Press, because of budget constraints and the need to comply with the law.

BLM already has authority to euthanize wild horses and burros. According to the BLM Factsheet, a 1978 amendment to the original law "authorizes the BLM to euthanize excess wild horses and burros for which an adoption demand by qualified individuals does not exist."

Since 2004, BLM has been selling horses and burros that are either at least 10 years old or have been passed by for adoption at least three times. Authority to do this was enacted in an amendment to the original law.

So far, sales have only been to buyers planning to provide long-term care, but there is a provision to sell "without limitation," meaning the animals could be put to any lawful use once title passes from BLM to a private owner.

The option to carry on with business as usual also exists. If current adoption, removal, and holding policies are continued, it is estimated costs would reach $77 million by 2012.

The appropriation for 2008 is already less than that for 2007 by $1.8 million, so it does not appear that there is sufficient political support to continue the program as it presently exists.

According to Stokke, there is currently no practical fertility control agent for wild horses. What does exist is about 90% effective for the first year, if applied at the right time of year. The nature of horse herds roaming across vast Nevada ranges makes this a tough proposition. However, BLM is working on a research project with the American Humane Society to develop a birth control agent that is both highly effective and works over a span of several years.

Value-Added Wild Horses

BLM supports programs designed to enhance the value of wild horses to potential adopters. In partnership with the Mustang Heritage Foundation, BLM helps subsidize the training of wild horses so they are more attractive as adoption candidates than those fresh off the range.

BLM also works with some state corrections departments. In Nevada, inmate trained wild horses are available for adoption through the Nevada Department of Corrections, Warm Springs Correctional Center in Carson City. At various times, public auctions of trained horses are also held.

For more information, please call (775) 861-6469.

Congressmen Want to Know More

Nick Rahall, Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, and Raul Grijalva, Chairman of the Sub-Committee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, wrote Bisson an official letter, dated July 9, 2008, spelling out their concerns regarding possible action by BLM with respect to changing current wild horse and burro policies and practices. They have a lot of questions about how and why BLM finds itself in a position of having to consider euthanasia for wild horses and burros. They are requesting that BLM take no further action until a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report about management of the wild horse and burro program is received and reviewed by Congress, BLM, and the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board.

The report is due in September, 2008.

Submit Your Comments on the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program

At this point, BLM is exploring all the options legally available for managing the wild horse and burro population. If you would like to provide comments and information as a member of the public, the BLM website has an online form for submitting comments.

Wild Horse and Burro Information from BLM

  • The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971
  • BLM National Wild Horse and Burro Information Center
  • BLM Nevada Wild Horse & Burro Program
  • BLM National Wild Horse & Burro Program
  • National Wild Horse & Burro Advisory Board

Adopting a Wild Horse or Burro

Private Wild Horse Advocacy Groups

Private wild horse advocacy groups offer various points of view on wild horse issues. Proposals being floated include more effective birth control, putting more effort into promoting wild horses as a tourist attraction, and providing tax breaks to large land holders willing to provide long-term care and grazing to animals removed from the range.


  • Interview on 7/10/08 with Susie Stokke, Wild Horse & Burro Program Lead for BLM Nevada, Resources Division.
  • Factsheet: Challenges Facing the BLM in its Management of Wild Horses and Burros, June 30, 2008, Bureau of Land Management, Public Affairs Office, Washington, D.C. Contact: Tom Gorey (202) 452-5137.
  • Reno Gazette Journal, 7/1/08, 7/7/08.

Full Disclosure: I am a volunteer with the BLM Nevada State Office, primarily involved with photography work.