The Mustang Problem: $67 Million a Year to Keep Wild Horses in Pens?

Mustangs photographed by a BLM employee, sourced via WikiCommons
Mustangs photographed by a BLM employee, sourced via WikiCommons

“They are a symbol of the American West, but do we need 35,000 symbols of the American West?”

Nathaniel Messer, professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Missouri, quoted in the NYT in September 2010.


Horses are well habituated to much of the North American landscape. After all, it was in the forests and open plains of what’s now the USA that the horse as we know it evolved. Lately, with few predators to trouble them, they’ve been thriving at such a rate that they create problems for landowners and ranchers, and now the government.

The American wild horse or mustang is the descendent of equines that have gone feral in the US since the first arrival of the Conquistadors. They have no real “type” as a breed and, thanks to the efforts of 20th-century campaigners, are permitted to roam free on public lands as “an integral part of the natural system”. The government authority in charge of the herd of 33,000 or so animals is the Bureau of Land Management or BLM. If you want to know more about the back story of the mustang and the laws that were hammered out to protect it, I recommend Deanne Stillman’s excellent Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West.

The BLM are authorised to remove horses from the wild in order to prevent overpopulation and resulting environmental damage. Regular round ups funnel horses to short-term holding facilities where they are sorted into adoptable and unadoptable (the unadoptable are humanely destroyed). Some horses go from the short-term facilities to new homes as domestic animals. Most go to long-term facilities, where they remain, often indefinitely. The BLM pays for their care, and as many of these horses will live in the longterm facilities until their natural death, it makes for some pretty expensive “wild” horses.

A report published today by Robert A Garrott (Montana State University) and Madan K Oli (University of Florida) in Science makes it clear that what the BLM are doing is utterly unsustainable. The budget for the National Wild Horses and Burros Program clocked in at $19.8 million in 2000, and, despite the Credit Crunch and government cutbacks, was a mighty $74.9 million in 2012, with 60% being spent on the “wild” mustangs in those short- and long-term holding facilities.

Garrott and Oli drew on the records of 165,459 horses that have been dewilded by the BLM for their sums. It will take some 30 years for all the captive horses to live out their lifespans and die naturally, and it will cost the BLM approximately $449 million (with allowance for inflation) to maintain them. Total expenses for these and new horses taken from the wild would hit $1.1 billion between 2013 and 2030, and after that it would cost $67 million a year to keep all those publicly owned horses.

The BLM is already slowing down its round ups due to lack of funding, which will of course lead to a larger wild population even though water and forage are running low in some areas due to drought. Garrott and Oli endorse the use of “effecive vaccines that prevent pregnancy in both captive and free-ranging mares for 1 to 3 years”. This, they calculate, would halve the population growth and save $16,110 in maintenance for every horse, or $1 million per 62 horses. Fewer horses would require removal from public land, and fewer horses would be in short-term or long-term holding facilities. Rosiest of scenarios: the number of horses removed might even match the number of willing adoptive homes.

Of course, any contraceptive programme would mean more distressing round-ups for the wild herds, but, as Garrott and Oli rather bleakly point out, this would be preferable to the current Australian situation, where once more there are proposals to reduce outsize herds by gunning them down from helicopters.



Published by Susanna Forrest

Writer Amazons of Paris, The Age of the Horse and If Wishes Were Horses.

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  1. Shared! I know a lot about the American wild horse situation, but very little about the Australian. Sustainable herd reduction, hopefully via sterilization, seems to be one of the best paths- for the sake of the horse welfare. Some wealthy Americans are setting up sanctuaries, which face their own problems, but at least provide land free from competition with running cattle.

    1. I love wild horses, but every animal population (I’d include humans in that) risks destroying their environment if they get out of control. Even if nature is the only one in charge.

  2. Why would you have to do roundups to administer birth control? Assateague Island does it without human horse contact. I suggest you speak with Carl Zimmerman at the Assateaque Ranger Station for a better description of their work in this area.

    1. Hello Phyllis and welcome to the blog! This post is about a specific study. The authors say that the current vaccines are “most effective when hand-injected” and “remote delivery of vaccines via dart is impractical for most free-ranging horse populations.” They reference studies on Assateague, but I’m guessing that, being an island, it’s a more straightforward location for delivering vaccines via dart.

  3. “Of course, any contraceptive programme would mean more distressing round-ups for the wild herds, but, as Garrott and Oli rather bleakly point out, this would be preferable to the current Australian situation, where once more there are proposals to reduce outsize herds by gunning them down from helicopters.” … Yep, that is what happens. No matter how often wild horse/brumby groups try to get the government to do a contraceptive program (or find more humane ways of controlling the population in general) the Australian government just keeps on ariel culling… Happened recently in the Northern Territory, they had a target of around 10,000 horses to that were “suffering in drought conditions”…photographic evidence from people in the region proved otherwise….still the ariel cull went ahead… It will be interesting to see how effective a contraceptive program is in America (if they go ahead with it), but unfortunately the Australian government is more concerned about saving money than finding a humane solution to the wild animal populations (kangaroos included) :(

      1. Yep, you would expect in 2013 they would have a better understanding of what is wrong with ariel culling but they do it to the kangaroos also (Australia’s national emblem). Though they have recently decided to export roo meat from Queensland to China and possibly Russia so instead they will try to capture then cull them like they do with some of the horses up north in Western Australia (which are then exported to Japan/Europe).
        More responsibility and greater morals by the politicians would be nice but unfortunately their egos are too big to back down from what is clearly an awful practise/policy :(

  4. The mustangs would not be a problem if their land was not shared by vast quantities of cattle. Their natural predators have been almost eliminated by humans. Who is the problem?

    1. But do we have the stomach to allow true rewilding? I know that at the big reserve in Holland that’s supposed to have a natural predator/prey mix they no longer just leave the sick or injured horses to their fate, but shoot them. Because people complained.

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