Wild Horses: Ecological Checks & Balances

Wild Horses

The Mustang Dilemma



Habitat is very important to wild horses, burros, and domestic livestock. Because wild horses and burros no longer have any natural predators, other than an occasional mountain lion, herds increase at relatively high rates. Populations generally rise about 18-20% per year. In years of adverse weather and poor forage conditions, the growth rate may decline to as low as 5%, but in good years it may be as high as 40%.

When populations of wild horses, wild burros, or domestic livestock exceed the capabilities of their habitat, the environment begins to decline, and there is no longer a thriving natural ecological balance. Ranchers must remove excess livestock, and state government officials must remove excess wildlife. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conducts the removal of wild horses and burros from public lands. Their removal is based on years of monitoring the habitat and observations of the herd.

If the decline is prolonged, it leads to poor rangeland health and accelerates a decrease in the health of the animals. Therefore, the BLM annually monitors the condition of the animals and their habitat. The BLM will also periodically count wild horses and burros. Resource specialists from other disciplines also monitor the rangelands. The BLM assesses the monitoring and census data and determines if and how many animals must be removed from the range. If this is not done, the consequences to the herds can be injury or death from starvation, dehydration, or susceptibility to the elements. When the BLM determines that there are too many wild horses or burros, a "gather plan" and environmental analysis is prepared, and the public is invited to comment.

Animals are normally gathered using helicopters and herded into portable traps. Excess animals may also be caught in traps using food or water as bait. To protect the animals, stallions are separated from the mares, and if need be, weaned foals are separated from larger animals. The BLM maintains very strict requirements about gathering wild horses and burros. But what happens after they are gathered?

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Dwindling Space          Urbanization
Ecological Checks and Balances