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Drought Forces Desperate Measures for Western Wild Horses

Extreme drought across large areas of the country is causing residents to take unprecedented steps to protect one of the most iconic symbols of the American West: wild mustang horses.

The Western United States has been gripped by drought for years, causing streams and springs that have flowed continuously to dry up for the first time. This is bad news for the thousands of wild mustang horses who call this arid region home and depend on these water sources for survival.

Wild horses in the American Southwest.

The situation reached a breaking point when nearly 200 horses were found dead around a dried-up watering hole in the Navajo Nation of northeastern Arizona. Since then, residents have been working to prevent another herd extinction by hauling thousands of gallons of water to the remote regions where these horses live.

Wild horses in the United States, also called feral horses, are protected by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) along with wild burros under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. The legislation protects these animals as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West,” but also controls their population as to not overgraze the public lands on which cattle farmers and ranchers rely.

Horses in the Navajo Nation near the Arizona/Utah border. The Navajo Nation has experienced some of the worst of the Western US’ drought.

Protections of the West’s wild horses has always been shrouded in controversy. While most issues arise from ranchers concerned about feeding their livestock, intense debate stems from the distinction of whether the horses are a reintroduced, native species or a newly introduced, invasive species. Horses, as we know them today, were present in America for millions of years until they went extinct about 10,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age, either from climate change or hunting by newly introduced humans. Since there were no wild horses in America for thousands of years, until reintroduction from Spain in 1519, many ecologists argue they are an invasive species and deprive native animals of valuable resources.

The BLM has set appropriate management levels (AML) which represent the number of animals wild horses and burros that can thrive on federal lands without disrupting the balance of other public land resources and uses. The total AML is about 26,000 animals; however, experts have estimated that a total of up to 70,000 wild horses are currently living in federally owned herd management areas.

Watering holes like this, which are typical of where wild horses in the Great Basin region of Nevada and Utah, are drying up and leaving horses with no water to drink.

When animal populations exceed the AML, the BLM is authorized to round up and relocate wild horses in order to maintain the ecological balance between the horses, native species, and private ranchers. Horses are either auctioned off through the Wild Horse and Burro Program or held in more permanent pens or pastures since they were protected from euthanasia or being slaughtered for meat. That changed in May of 2018 when President Trump’s federal budget included language which permitted the “humane euthanasia and unrestricted sale of certain excess animals.”

Regardless of the controversy, anyone who has seen a herd of wild mustang horses knows that these incredible animals deserve our protection. On behalf of the thousands of thirsty horses across the West, we want to thank the individual stewards who have taken up arms to protect these creatures from the scourge of drought.