Wild Horses and Burros:  Facts versus Opinions


These days, facts are often in short supply, supplanted instead by opinion or conjecture. Such is the case regarding this recent opinion piece pertaining to wild horses and burros.

With those who advocate for increased removal of the animals from public lands in the West, hyperbolic assertions are common, e.g., the claim that horses (and drought) have created an ‘environmental disaster’ in concert with each other. Damage to ‘wildlife’ is always referenced, presumably to tug at the heartstrings of readers in a feeble attempt to bolster the otherwise weak argument.

While Nevada’s public lands, its wildlife and vegetation, have plenty of challenges these days:  fires, cheatgrass, aging vegetation, drought, surface disruption from mining, energy exploration, suburban incursions, and the like, wild horses play a small part in it, particularly compared to decades of domestic livestock grazing.

It might be useful to look at some facts and data for a clearer picture of this issue.

Last year, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) estimated a population of about 86,000 horses and burros on its managed lands in the West. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) adds another 8000 animals, giving a total of about 94,000 animals using public lands in the West.

A 2020 BLM estimate of Nevada’s wild horse and burro numbers was 47,000 horses and 4000 burros.  California and Wyoming were in second place with about 9000 animals on their public lands.

On any given day in the U.S., the national cattle census numbers about 100 million animals (rule of thumb). On any given day, Western public lands contain about 3% of the nation’s cattle, or about 3 million animals.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in its 2020 State Agriculture Overview, suggests Nevada had 470,000 non-dairy cattle and calves along with about 60,000 domestic sheep:  

  • On public lands in the West, wild horses and burros are outnumbered by cattle and domestic sheep 32:1
  • In Nevada, wild horses and burros are outnumbered by cattle and domestic sheep 10:1

What About the Wildlife Issue in Nevada?

The term, ‘wildlife’ to ranchers, sportsmen, and others who oppose wild horses and burros means mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and pronghorns (antelope).  What’s the story with these species in Nevada?

  • Elk is probably not a native species to Nevada (no history of a sustainable population prior to introduction a few decades ago).  A few years ago, elk numbers approached 18,000 animals. The Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) and the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners (NBWC) deliberately reduced elk numbers (to about 15,000 now) because of depredation complaints by ranchers and other concerns.
  • Pronghorns have never been more numerous in Nevada in modern times with numbers approaching 30,000 animals.
  • Bighorn sheep numbers (about 12 000) in Nevada are exceeded only by Alaska. NDOW biologists have, for several years, cautioned that Nevada has run out of places to put bighorns due to possible conflicts with domestic sheep (which spread disease to bighorns that have no immunity to avoid illness). 
  • Mule deer is another species that may not have had a sustainable population in Nevada prior to introduction in the early 1900s. Deer numbers have peaked twice in the past 100 years above 200,000 animals. Current deer numbers are in the low 80,000 range. Climate change and insufficient quality habitat are the likely causes, not conflict with wild horses.

So, if the four ungulate species are not adversely impacted by wild horses and burros, what is?  

Recently, NBWC considered a draft commission policy statement regarding wild horses and burros. Though more complex than Mr. Golden’s piece, its tone was similar.  Only two wildlife species were mentioned in the draft: Lahontan cutthroat trout and sage grouse.

The draft policy was silent as to how wild horses and burros were affecting the fish.  Currently, ravens are being poisoned by NBWC to ‘protect’ sage grouse on the basis that (some) ravens remove eggs from sage grouse nests. Research findings also show an adverse impact on use of sage grouse leks (courtship grounds for the bird) when both cattle and horses are in proximity.

NBWC also allows hunting of sage grouse in Nevada.  Hunters are the largest direct cause of sage grouse mortality in Nevada, killing upwards of 2,000 birds every year.

What Does ‘Compensatory’ Mean, Anyway?

While differences are obvious, the BLM seems to regard cows and horses as the same animal…to be treated the same way…. with roundups.  


Image: BLM

What’s wrong with roundups for wild horses? Two things come to mind.

Cattle and domestic sheep have no definable regulatory social structure by which they live their lives. Wild horses, by their evolutionary history, prefer to live in a band structure, with a stallion and lead mare providing leadership.

Generally, only the lead mare becomes pregnant. Subadult females in the band assist in keeping the band structure intact but do not bear young. When a BLM roundup destroys that band structure with an ill-advised roundup, subadult mares are available for breeding.

Wildlife agencies tell hunters that, by killing wildlife, hunters are helping the target species (e.g., deer) because of ‘compensatory’ mortality. Translated, the notion is that killing an animal leaves slightly better conditions for those members of the species that remain alive…. e.g., a bit more to eat, a little more to drink, a bit more space to move around.  

Those benefits are thought to increase the overall ‘health’ of the species, leading to increased fertility, maybe a chance for twins, and…. presto…. more deer!

Guess what happens, then, when BLM removes many (but not all) horses in an area? Remaining animals obviously enjoy improved range conditions and may well prosper in the manner described above. Fertility may increase due to better conditions.  Subadult females are available for impregnation due to destruction of the band structure.

The term, Appropriate Management Level (AML), was mentioned in Mr. Golden’s piece. It refers to an opinion/value judgment made by the BLM suggesting a suitable number of horses and burros to occupy a certain area where the animals are legally entitled to live.  

Here is the problem with AMLs as defined by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) after an intensive 2013 review of BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro management program:

“How AMLs are established, monitored and adjusted is not transparent to stakeholders, supported by scientific information, or amenable to adaptation with new information and environmental and social change.”

NAS recommended that BLM develop transparent standards to establish AMLs that would accommodate new data and information as conditions change. BLM did not adopt the NAS recommendation.

An interesting evolutionary fact is often overlooked. Wild horses have a pancake-shaped hoof…. flat, oval. Cows have a bifurcated hoof which, in combination with greater body weight, has a more damaging impact on the ground, particularly in moist/riparian areas. 

There is little doubt that wild horses and burros are scapegoated to benefit the livestock industry which would prefer fewer wild horses and burros in favor of greater opportunity to graze domestic livestock on public lands.  

Wildlife agencies cater to ranchers and farmers in order not to jeopardize hunting opportunities on their private land or be denied access to public lands beyond that may require access across private property.

Wild Burros – image: David Renwald cc 2.0

Currently, assertions of harm to wildlife by wild horses and burros stand alone without much convincing evidence for support. Offers by sportsmen to show a trampled spring head or a patch of ground beat up by horses is easily offset by many more examples of environmental degradation attributable to domestic livestock.

Wild horses and burros have a large constituency among the public across the nation.  Tourists come to Nevada to view them. They should be regarded as an important and valuable public asset that we are lucky to have in this state.

Don Molde is a 50-year Reno resident, retired psychiatrist, co-founder of Nevada Wildlife Alliance, former board member of Defenders of Wildlife, and former board member of the Nevada Humane Society. He has been active in wildlife advocacy for 45 years. Support Don’s work here. 

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence.

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