Challis, Idaho • Dawn broke over the peaks of the Lost River Range, revealing a chase in the wide open valley below. Seven wild horses crashed through the sage, dark manes billowing in the golden light, pursued by a government contractor in a glossy helicopter that dodged left and right like a mechanical border collie, driving the band forward into a hidden corral.
Within hours, the captured mustangs had been sorted, loaded onto trucks to be stamped with an identification number and sent to the Bureau of Land Management’s wild horse storage system. And the helicopter was back out hounding the hills for more.
All over the West, similar scenes have played out as the federal government fights to control the number of wild horses roaming public lands. Managers say they need to keep the herds down so they don’t destroy delicate native species habitats and threaten the livelihoods of ranchers.
But in recent years, the Bureau of Land Management has been losing that fight on two fronts: It hasn’t been able to round up nearly enough horses to limit the wild population. And it doesn’t know what to do with the ones it has managed to capture.
The roundup operation itself is strikingly efficient; a helicopter and a few workers in jean jackets can catch scores of mustangs in a day. The bureau rounded up 7,300 in 2019.
But once they are caught, they have to be fed and cared for. And the costs and frictions of having so many animals on the government’s hands — 49,000 at last count — have pushed the whole wild horse program toward collapse.
The rented pastures and feed lots where they are kept now devour more than two-thirds of the program’s budget, leaving little money for anything else, including looking for ways to get the bureau out of its current fix.
Low on cash, the bureau cut roundups drastically in recent years. But officials acknowledge that the move just made matters worse, allowing the population on the range to grow rapidly. There are now about 100,000 wild horses and burros on public lands — more than at any time since the days of the Old West. The government estimates the land can sustain only about 27,000.
Bureau officials warn that the mustang herds are a looming catastrophe for the land, and there is no cheap or obvious solution. Capturing all the excess horses and caring for them in storage for the rest of their lives could cost up to $3 billion. Doing nothing may prove costly, too.
“If we don’t get this controlled, it’s just going to get worse,” said Alan Shepherd, the on-range branch chief for the wild horse program. Mustangs have already destroyed fragile desert springs in some places — and the birds, snakes and butterflies that depend on them. “We are going to get to the point where the public lands are going to be almost unusable by anything,” he said.
Shepherd started his career 30 years ago working on an emergency roundup on the Nellis Air Force Base missile test range in southern Nevada, where drought and overpopulation killed thousands of mustangs.
Now, near the end of his career, he worries that more herds are headed for a similar collapse.
Wild horse welfare groups argue that the crisis is largely invented. They say the government sets its population targets artificially low to justify mass removals that serve the interests of cattle ranchers and distract from other public land policies that are far more damaging.
“It’s a bait and switch,” said Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, a group that has lobbied against roundups. “They say wild horses are an existential threat; meanwhile, they are loosening regulation on energy extraction. We do agree that roundups are creating a crisis in management, but the claims of overpopulation and horses starving are just not borne out by on-the-ground observations. Generally, the horses are doing pretty good.”
Crisis or no crisis, the number of horses on the range has risen into uncharted territory. Shepherd estimated that while 7,300 horses were captured in 2019, 17,000 foals were born. “We’re not even keeping at status quo,” he said.
In the early frontier days, wild horses in the West were too numerous to count. Explorers saw herds running on the Great Plains, likening the sight to the roll of waves in the ocean. On early maps, vast areas were labeled simply as “wild horse desert.” Later, as the region was settled, the herds were hunted down. Many were shipped east to pull city streetcars in places like Manhattan. Others were slaughtered for dog food and fertilizer. By the 1960s, only a few thousand mustangs were left.
Congress granted federal protection in 1971 to the remaining herds, which were nearly all on Bureau of Land Management land. With few predators and no hunters to cull them, the herds began to rebound, and land managers realized in the 1980s that they were quickly outgrowing the patchwork of public land allotted to them. That is when the helicopter roundups began.
At first, the program appeared sustainable. The bureau publicized an adoption program that found homes for captured horses, and the wild population stayed relatively constant. But news reports in the 1990s revealed that most of the “adopted” horses were actually going to slaughter, often while bureau employees profited. Regulations were tightened, and a backlog of unwanted horses began to build up on rented pastures in the Midwest.
Some conservative lawmakers from rural districts have pushed the bureau to euthanize excess horses or sell them for slaughter, but those steps remain widely unpopular and have not gained traction in Congress.
The bureau has told lawmakers repeatedly that it could create a sustainable program if Congress budgeted enough money to reduce the wild population to 27,000. Three times in the past 30 years, Congress has done so. Each time, though, the efforts were tripped up by dizzying costs and lawsuits from animal welfare groups.
Now the bureau is asking again. William Perry Pendley, its acting director, is a longtime conservative activist and lawyer who sued the bureau a number of times on behalf of ranchers before entering the administration. In an interview, he said he favors a proposal to remove more than 70,000 horses from the range over five years.
“Right now, it’s the ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice,’” he said. “We’re carrying water and not getting anywhere.”
The bureau is in talks to open two huge feedlots to hold thousands of horses. But it is unclear if Congress is willing to spend billions to store unwanted horses, especially if an economic downturn drains public funds. Bureau staff say privately that they expect the population on the range to continue to grow toward disaster.
It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. More than a decade ago, government auditors warned that the cost of storing captured horses would “overwhelm the program.” A 2013 report by the National Academy of Sciences urged the bureau to shift away from roundups and start using readily available and inexpensive fertility control drugs, which are typically administered by dart gun annually in the field.
Bureau leaders acknowledged the warnings and promised to embrace fertility control drugs, but their use actually declined in the years after the report. Less than 1% of the program’s current budget is spent on them.
Nearly all of the fertility control now happening on wild horse ranges is done by local volunteers, often retirees, who have learned to wield dart guns in the field.
That includes Andrea Macki, a visual artist who has been darting horses in the Challis herd for more than five years. She says the fertility control treatments have slowed reproduction rates by half and could do more.
“It’s the obvious solution,” she said as she squinted through the dawn light to watch the helicopter rounding up horses she knew. “I wish the BLM would invest in it instead of all this.”
Bureau officials say that darting tens of thousands of horses in the field each year is not practical and would take years to shrink the herds as much as a roundup can in a few days. Congress approved a $21 million increase in the wild horse program’s budget for this year, with the stipulation that the money would be released only when the bureau submitted a five-year plan that includes increases in both roundups and fertility control.
The bureau has also taken steps to dispose of captured horses, including deals that may be sending horses quietly to slaughter. It has ramped up sales of horses it deems unadoptable, charging $25 a head. In 2019 it sold 1,967 that way, often by the truckload in bulk sales; officials have refused to say who the buyers were.
Shepherd said the bureau tries to screen out slaughter buyers but acknowledged that it does nothing to monitor the fate of horses after sale.
The bureau also created a program that offers $1,000 to anyone willing to adopt a horse.
Together, the sales and adoptions put about 7,000 horses into private hands last year, not enough even to keep pace with roundups, let alone draw down the number now warehoused.
On the edge of the wild horse range in Challis in central Idaho, Jackie Ingram, a rancher, has shared 168,700 acres of public land with the mustang herds for 46 years. Each spring her family drives hundreds of Black Angus cattle up a steep road through Spur Canyon to graze the high, windswept hills on Bureau of Land Management land.
In some years, she said, the wild horses left so little grass to eat that other wildlife disappeared, and her family had to cut back their cattle herd.
“We like the horses, but we also want to protect the land,” she said. “Every time they do a roundup, we’re happy. If the horses get to be too numerous, it affects the sage grouse, the elk, the antelope and us. All of us depend on the grass.”