Born Free ~ Part 1
by Bethany Videto
Yes, there are still wild horses in the United States. Most people who find this fact out immediately ask something akin to, “Where? Where is there enough room for wild horse herds in the United States?” Mustangs are found in the mid-west, and yes they are free roaming, but everyone who asks this question is correct. They are running out of room, or we are encroaching on their space. Whatever your perspective, the threat is the same. The Wild Mustang has nowhere to go and their resources are shared with rancher owned, domestic cows that graze the same lands.
What is a Mustang? I have been asked this question a lot since I began research for this article. The Mustang is a free-roaming, wild horse that is found in America. These wild horses are descended from a mix of other breeds, with a heavy bloodline influence from horses brought over by Spain in the late 15th and 16th centuries. Native Americans abducted horses and rode them west, allowing the breed to spread. Escaped and abandoned horses joined up, creating herds. Over the years, this continued to happen which further diversified the breed, as the wild mustang comes in many shapes, sizes and colors.
In 1971, The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, which made it illegal to hunt or kill wild horses and burros. Why would we need such a law you ask? Here is why: we have approximately 49,000 free-roaming horses that wander through an area that the BLM states should optimally support 27,000. That is just under twice the number of horses specialists say the land should support in order for ranchers to still utilize the land as well. The Mustang population has so vastly outgrown its allocated living space that they are overgrazing the land and not only starving themselves to death, but leaving little to no grazing for the rancher owned cattle. To the cattle rancher, the Mustang is a nuisance that is taking food from the cows and money from their wallets.
The BLM has stated openly that they are doing their best to make sure everyone is able to use the shared public lands. In an effort to help keep food and forage available, groups of Mustangs are rounded up using helicopters and ATVs, and placed in short term corrals or long term pastures. These are commonly referred to as short and long term holding facilities. Currently, there are a total of approximately 47,478 mustangs being held throughout these facilities. The average cost of maintaining these facilities is $49 million per year! That is a huge chunk of dough! The number is more understandable once you realize that each horse costs $1.60 per day to feed and maintain. However, they do have programs in place in an attempt to aid the Mustangs and defer some of the costs. The BLM is deeply involved with Mustang adoption programs. There are several adoption awareness programs now, such as the Extreme Mustang Make-Over and The Mustang Million. These programs are fun for spectators and anyone can take part. Additionally the BLM offers any horses or burros removed from the wild up for adoption, many of which can be viewed at Mustang auctions or by visiting one of the holding facilities,
Life in a holding facility is short and stressful for the animals removed from the wild and never adopted. The average life span of an animal left in holding is 10-15 years. That is less than half the life expectancy of a Mustang left in the wild, which is an amazing 40 years old (if they don’t die from an injury or starvation). That is longer than the domestic horse with a life span of 25-35 years old.
The BLM is hoping to round up a total of 13,000 free-roaming Mustangs over the next five years, on top of the ones already in holding; that is a lot of lives being cut short. Currently, adoption is the best answer the BLM has, and even though it is incredibly affordable ($125 adoption fee or $275 starting bid for a saddle trained horse) the holding facilities are nearing their 57,769 animal capacity. Low adoption fees are great, but can also be a bit of a double-edged sword. Last year, the BLM was sued for not protecting approximately 575 horses that were adopted out from going to slaughter.
The BLM has adopters sign an affidavit stating that they will not sell their adopted Mustang into slaughter and then withholds onto the paper title to the horse. After a year the title is handed off to the adopter and the Mustang becomes their personal property. Despite these efforts, once a new owner has the title to the horse, there are still incidents of adopters selling their low investment wild horse to slaughter for profit. With so much working against the wild horse, it has become a valid concern that the Mustang will be managed into extinction.
Animal rights groups very vocally believe the BLM is showing favoritism to the ranchers when it comes to use of the shared public grazing lands. Meanwhile, the Mustang population increases at a rate of approximately 18% every year, with no natural predators to speak of. Meaning that no matter what, eventually there will be too many Mustangs for the land to support, with or without the cattle sharing their food source. The BLM has raised its adoption goals from 7,000 per year to 10,000 per year; this new goal would make a huge difference for the Mustang breed and for the costs of maintaining the horses in holding. Many groups are hoping that a non-federally funded group will take an interest in the Wild Mustang and help to find a better answer to the rising mustang populations both in and out of the holding facilities. Only one thing is for sure: the more awareness the wild Mustang receives, the better chance they have.