There is an ongoing disagreement among outdoor enthusiast about how many wild horses should be able to roam western public lands. In Utah this argument is often loud and leads to litigation. These discrepancies boil down to how each person weights the value of horses, cattle, wildlife, economic growth, and ecological sustainability.
Neither horses nor cattle are native to North America. That said, horses were found on this continent as recently as 10,000 years ago. At that time horses, giant sloths, giant beaver and other megafauna disappeared as human populations increased and the climate changed. Horses were reintroduced, and cattle joined them, when Europeans started to colonize North America 500 years ago.
Since then, some horses, either escaped or released, have rewilded. Some argue horses are feral, not wild. For those that come to this conclusion, rainbow trout and mountain goats should be considered feral as well since they were released by humans and are not native to Utah. Regardless of how you label their status, horses and cattle will be forever the iconic symbols of the American West.
Prior to the 1970s, wild horses lacked legal protections so were often humanely and inhumanely slaughtered for numerous or no reason. To correct this problem, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Management Act in 1971. It is interesting the bill protecting horses came before the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 and the Public Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978, which were intended to protect public land from overgrazing. These laws, taken as a whole, promote wild horses and cattle on public lands as long as they can be sustainably managed.
Determining how many animals are sustainable is difficult because environmental conditions vary from year-to-year. The proper number of horses is termed the Appropriate Management Level and is determined for herd managements areas. For cattle a similar number is set and labeled Animal Unit Months within an allotment. The proper number of deer and antelope in the Southwest and West Desert Hunt Units are described as the management objectives for those herds.
A concern many have with these numbers is the lack of transparency in how they were calculated, in addition to differing levels of trust in the agencies that set them. The overall goal of ungulate management on public lands should be to maintain clean water and the productivity of the ecosystem while providing for economic and recreational opportunities. Determining this balance is improved by incorporating the public into the discussion.
Even if an appropriate number of horses, cattle and big game on rangelands could be determined, the question remains how to maintain this number through time. Keeping cattle and big game numbers in check is simple, as excess animals can be harvested and end up on the dinner table.
Governing how excess wild horses should be accounted for is more difficult. In the United States it is generally unacceptable to hunt or slaughter surplus wild horses. This means the most likely long-term solution for horses is fertility drugs, used in a way that respects the dynamics of a given herd. Currently, excess horses are rounded up; some are adopted while others are transferred to long term pastures. There are now over 50,000 wild horses in corrals and holding pastures across the west.
Overhearing discussions relative to wild horses, you might assume we have a lot in Utah. Based on 2021 surveys, there are around 3,300 wild horses in the state. This is twice what was determined to be the Appropriate Management Level, but still not a lot of horses. The concern with wild horse populations is they can grow at 15 to 20% per year, which means they can double their numbers in five or six years.
Hopefully, everyone sees the advantages of proactively managing ungulate populations. Left on their own, they would almost certainly overpopulate, causing starvation in the short-term and lower-quality rangelands that would support fewer animals in the long-term.
There is no unbiased approach to balance the number of horses, cattle, wildlife and other environmental concerns on public lands. Right now, through collaboration, win-win solutions are possible. If groups continue to fight each other rather than work towards compromise, time and money that could go towards improved management of ungulates on public lands may be wasted. Furthermore, the courts may determine the final outcome. This is rarely a satisfactory way to solve disagreements and will likely leave everyone unhappy.