Ben Masters Explains the Mustang Emergency

The following is a republication of Ben Masters’ comments on Facebook. It is reprinted with his permission.

By Ben Masters

The current situation with BLM Wild Horses, Burros, and the habitat they and wildlife depend on is an emergency. Yesterday we finished the Advisory Board Meeting in which I am the volunteer sitting in the Wildlife Management chair. The meeting was intense and the incredibly difficult recommendation to the BLM was made “To follow the stipulations of the Wild Horse and Burro Act by offering all suitable animals in long and short term holding deemed unadoptable for sale without limitation or humane euthanasia. Those animals deemed unsuitable for sale should then be destroyed in the most humane manner possible.” Here is how this recommendation came to be.
For those of you unfamiliar with the “plight” of the mustangs, here it is in a nutshell…
The Ancestors of Wild Horses evolved in North America but went extinct in the Great Pleistocene Extinction over 10,000 years ago. Fortunately, they migrated across the Bering Strait prior to extinction where they were eventually domesticated, breeds developed, artificial selection occurred, and horses were ultimately brought back to the Americas during European Expansion. Horses escaped, were set free to breed, and multiplied in a “Wild” or “Feral” state for hundreds of years. As the West was settled, these Wild Horses, often called mustangs, were rounded up to the point that Velma Johnson, AKA Wild Horse Annie, pushed for legislation to protect the remaining Wild Horses. This culminated in the Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 that protected the 15,000 or so Horses and Burros remaining in the American West. Today Wild Horses and burros are managed on about 32 million acres of land in about 179 Herd Management Areas (HMAs).
Under protection, the Wild Horses and Burro populations grew about 15-20% annually and threatened overgrazing on the rangelands that they shared with wildlife and in some cases livestock. So the BLM, the government agency in charge of managing the Wild Horses, created Appropriate Management Levels (AMLs) which is the number of horses that each Herd Management Area (HMA) can supposedly sustain in a thriving ecological balance with wildlife and in some areas livestock. Currently, the total Appropriate Management Level nationwide for Wild Horses and Burros is 26,715.
The Appropriate Management Level on the range is 26,715 but the current population is about 75,000 horses, nearly 3X the AML. I’m getting that number from censuses (conducted in the manner recommended by the Academy of Sciences) on March 1, 2016, which was 67,000 plus the additional number of foals that have been born since then. The BLM is supposed to gather excess horses to prevent overgrazing but they can’t because they’ve already gathered and are boarding 45,000 Wild Horses and Burros in holding pens. The BLM is spending $50 Million annually (2/3 of its Wild Horse and Burro budget) on hay and pasture bill for the horses in holding. This expense has eaten into funds that could be used for on-range management or adoption incentives. The BLM doesn’t have enough money to conduct enough gathers to control populations on the range and they don’t have a place to put them even if they did gather them.
So why can’t we just leave the horses alone? The reason is simple. Overpopulated grazers (whether horses, cattle, sheep, elk, or deer) will and can overgraze the land that they depend on. In the delicate Western desert ecosystems that our Wild Horses and Burros depend on, overgrazing can lead to devastating effects that can last far beyond my lifetime. Right now we are witnessing an ecological disaster on tens of millions of acres of our beloved Western Landscapes. It is affecting reptiles, mammals, birds, invertebrates, migrating species, amphibians, threatened and endangered species, plant communities, soil health, and even water availability. I have seen it firsthand.
During this Advisory Board Meeting, we took a field trip to the Antelope Valley HMA Complex. The Complex is East of Elko, NV and is 1.3 Million Acres of High Desert that gets about 5 inches of precipitation a year, mainly as snow. It is a very delicate ecosystem that can take decades, if ever, to recover if it is overgrazed. The Appropriate Management Level for the Antelope Valley HMA Complex is 278-464 horses. The current population is 3,360 horses, over 700% of the Appropriate Management Level.
On the way to the Antelope HMA Complex, we saw about 100 horses drinking from a pond next to the road. Bruce, our tour guide, explained that the main water sources for all 3,360 horses were on private land. That means that the water for all these horses is dependent on private landowners who could very easily and legally fence out the horses. In this particular case, the private landowner was a mining company that bought the ranch for the water rights for future mining activity. This shocked me. It seems extremely risky to me to depend on the water generosity of private landowners or businesses that own the surface and water rights.

Dolly Varden Springs in Antelope Valley, Nevada. The Appropriate Management Level of this area is 464 horses, currently there are 3,160. There is no cattle grazing in this area. The yellow grass in the distance is mainly unpalatable invasive Cheatgrass and Mustard. This area used to be a riparian habitat. The spring is privately owned and legally the landowner could fence out horses.
We stopped about a mile from the major water source of the entire HMA Complex, Dolly Varden Springs, to look at what plants were growing. It was almost entirely the invasive Cheatgrass, annual mustard, invasive Russian Thistle, Rabbitbrush, and the invasive and toxic Halogeton. Each of these plant species is very undesirable and has very little forage value for wild horses or wildlife (with the exception of rabbitbrush which is great for pollinators.) If such intense grazing pressure hadn’t existed, there would be a more diverse mix of native grasses like rice grass, needle and thread, bluestems, along with different sage species, brushes like four wing salt bush, along with forbs and winterfat. After years of overgrazing, the area has been converted from its diverse native glory into a highly flammable invasive species-infested vegetation community with very little forage value. Because of this, wildlife suffers, horses suffer, and we’re passing along a less rich world to future generations and the wildlife that depend on it. It is worth noting that there has been no livestock grazing in this described area in 7 years and the sample research plots show a steady decline in perennial native vegetations and a rise of annual invasives.
This degradation is happening to millions of acres across the Western United States right now. There are many species to blame. This can happen when there is overgrazing of elk, deer, cattle, sheep, or horses. However, hunting permits and predators control cervid populations and grazing permits are revoked when there are too many livestock. Only Wild Horses and Burros don’t have an “out” because of politics, budget constraints, and there’s not enough room gather and board excess horses. They also have virtually no predators. Wild Horses are causing severe rangeland degradation in some areas. This isn’t an “if.” This is a fact. It is an emergency situation right now and it will only get worse. Just yesterday at the advisory board meeting we got word that hundreds horses have to be gathered in an emergency because they’re thirsting to death trying to drink from a spring that isn’t supplying enough water. Once a landscape crosses a degradation threshold, it is nearly impossible to recover. Millions of acres have already crossed over that threshold and if we don’t make hard decisions, millions more acres will cross over that line in the years to come. It is difficult to blame a beautiful animal like the Wild Horse, but it is imperative that we acknowledge the fact that overpopulated large herbivores can and do cause rangeland damage to delicate ecosystems in the American West.

Invasive Cheatgrass for as far as the eye can see. Cheatgrass only has nutritional value for two weeks a year, increases fire risk, and has taken over millions of acres in the American West creating invasive monocultures with very little nutritional value. Cheatgrass often comes into disturbed areas such as overgrazing or fire.
I think it is important to state a goal for the BLM’s Wild Horse & Burro Advisory Board. Here is my goal: “To lower Wild Horse & Burro populations to the Appropriate Management Level and to use humane fertility control methods, applied by volunteers, to slow the population growth of the Wild Horses to the point where if/when gathers are necessary, the amount gathered equals the adoption demand. After rangelands have improved and population growth has been successfully suppressed, AML should be studied and increased if available forage exists.”
If we achieve this stated goal then we would have a perfectly sustainable, affordable, and publicly acceptable long-term solution to the Wild Horse and Burro Program. Getting there is difficult because of the 45,000 horses already in holding and the 40,000 horses over AML on the range. So what realistic options do we have? Here are the options that I see. If you have additional ideas I would like to know them.
1. Achieve AML by gathering excess horses and put them into holding pens. It costs about $50,000 for each horse per lifetime that goes into this system. This option will require BILLIONS more dollars from Congress. It would be nice to think that we could get all of these gathered horses adopted but it is not realistic. I tried vigorously to get horses adopted through Unbranded but failed to make a significant dent in the short and long term holding pens. I don’t believe Congress will increase the BLM’s annual budget by hundreds of millions of dollars to allow this to happen and to be honest, I don’t think sending all those horses to sit in a pen or pasture with no wild tendencies until they die is a very humane thing to do.
2. Achieve AML by selling excess Wild Horses and Burros to the public. Thousands of horses would be purchased by individuals, some by me, but many would find their way on a truck to Canada or Mexico to be slaughtered and used for food. This would be the most cost effective manner but in my opinion, a truck ride to Mexico to die in an unregulated squeeze chute isn’t as humane as swift euthanasia.
3. Achieve AML by euthanizing older unadoptable horses in holding pens to allow space for excess horses on the range to be gathered and offered for adoption. In my opinion, this is more humane than selling the horses that could wind up going to slaughter. Once AML is achieved, fertility control methods should be implemented to slow the population growth so that the BLM doesn’t ever have to euthanize again.
4. Use sterilization and additional public lands to achieve AML. Theoretically this could work. Extra public lands could possibly be made available to allow excess horses to be sterilized to create non-reproducing herds to live out the rest of their lives in a wild environment. Once AML is achieved, fertility control could be used to slow the population growth in the reproducing herds to the point where the gather demand equals the adoption demand. However, this scenario is virtually impossible. It would require acts of Congress, overcoming dozens of lawsuits, and currently spaying of mares isn’t a tool that the BLM has in its toolbox because Wild Horse Activist organizations filed lawsuits prohibiting the research that would’ve enabled the BLM to spay Mares. FYI gelding studs does nothing to little population growth because one stud can cover dozens of mares. Sterilization has to be done to mares to be effective as a population suppression. I would prefer to use this option but I don’t think there’s a snowflake’s chance in hell for it to happen.
5. Do nothing. Allow Wild Horses to continue to overpopulate to the point where they eat all available forage and begin starving to death. This is already happening, for example at Cold Creek HMA last year. If we choose this option, we are damning millions of acres of beautiful landscapes to be taken over by invasive plants and destroying the habitat that native wildlife depends on. In my opinion, this inhumane to the horses and the wildlife. I also don’t want millions of acres of degraded landscapes to be my conservation legacy. Sadly, I think this will likely be the outcome if the general public and politicians don’t get involved, educated, and act swiftly.
After the informative but gloomy field tour and data presentation, myself and the other 7 Advisory Board Members broke off into subcommittees to discuss recommendations to give to the BLM to try and find the best of the bad solutions. I chair the Adoption committee with June Sewing, Ginger Kathrens, and Fred Woehl. After talking to trainers, organizations, and potential buyers, I believe that its possible for the BLM to increase adoptions by offering more sale eligible horses rather than mustangs with the traditional red-taped paperwork-filled one year adoption process. So, in order to make more sale eligible mustangs available to trusted trainers and helping organizations (mustangs have to be made available for adoption 3 times before becoming sales eligible) I made the recommendation to: “Advertise and Conduct more frequent adoption events at off-range corrals to enable more Horses and Burros to reach Sale Eligible Status.” My recommendation was approved by a full census amongst the board.
The heavy recommendation came out of the Resources subcommittee. This recommendation again “To follow the stipulations of the Wild Horse and Burro by offering all suitable animals in long and short term holding deemed unadoptable for sale without limitation or humane euthanasia. Those animals deemed unsuitable for sale should then be destroyed in the most humane manner possible.” Think about that. The entire Wild Horse and Burro Program is so broken beyond repair, so far gone, and so environmentally damaging that euthanasia and sale without stipulation was recommended by the Natural Resources committee to save the landscapes that the horses and wildlife depend on. The decision to make this recommendation to the BLM was not taken lightly. The volunteers on the Advisory Board aren’t paid and trust me that none of us want the terrible press that such a statement is bringing. I’ve received about 500 hate emails in 24 hours and about 50 emails of support from people that live in the areas impacted by horses. I’m not being paid for this and I have zero desire to be in the crosshairs of the court of social media . This is the last recommendation that any of the board members wanted to make. However, we don’t see any options left and the resources committee would rather see tens of thousands of horses sold or euthanized rather than allow them to degrade millions of acres of public rangelands.
But is this recommendation to euthanize or sell actually realistic in the short term? No. It is not. Although the Act states “The Secretary shall manage wild free-roaming horses and burros in a manner that is designed to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance on public lands” and “to determine whether appropriate management levels should be achieved by the removal or destruction of excess animals,” there has been a rider since 2010 on the WH&B act that prohibits the sale or euthanasia of healthy Wild Horses and Burros. For the BLM to actually go through with euthanizing or selling of Wild Horses, there would be a congressional vote with lots of lawsuits and extreme publicity. The publicity and outrage our recommendation will could FINALLY make congress realize what a tremendous disaster the WH&B program is and get some funding and attention to address this massive problem. If Congress actually makes euthanasia or sale an option, I will do everything in my power as a citizen and as an Advisory Board member to get all of those horses adopted before they are euthanized or sold. We euthanize our cats, we euthanize or dogs, and I’m willing to euthanize our horses to ensure that our wildlife and future generations inherit public lands that are in as good of shape or better shape than the public lands that were passed on to me. And to any of you who think that I’m an evil SOB cattle rancher sell out for saying this, I’ve adopted 7 Wild Horses, have ridden from Mexico to Canada to promote adoptions, have devoted my life to conservation, am not associated with the livestock business, have devoted the last five years to solving the WH&B crisis, am trained in PZP, have raised nearly $100,000 for the Mustang Heritage Foundation, and have personally placed over 100 Wild Horses into homes. I’ve done everything that I possibly can to try and find an alternative solution to the WH&B crisis.
Please, I beg you to adopt a wild horse, to get trained in PZP fertility control, give ideas to the advisory board, get engaged, and help the BLM out of this environmentally catastrophic disaster in as humane of a manner as possible. 7 out of 8 present board members passed this euthanasia and sale Recommendation. Ginger Kathrens of the Cloud Foundation voted no. Its worth noting that the board members who voted Yes represented Wild Horse and Burro Advocacy, Veterinary Medicine, Natural Resources Management, Wild Horse and Burro Research, Wildlife Management, and Livestock Management. The situation truly is that bad.
Other Recommendations that were passed: “BLM should prioritize designated Sage Grouse Habitat for removal of excess animals. BLM should also use degree of range degradation as a criterion for prioritization for removal of excess animals. Consideration should be given to those rangelands that are most amenable to rehabilitation.”
Recommendation: “BLM should develop partnerships with other agencies and departments to conduct environmental and socioeconomic effects of reduced AUMs on HMAs due to range degradation resulting from overpopulation of Wild Horses and Burros. Further analysis should be conducted regarding the effects of the potential removal of all livestock from HMAs.” *The purpose of this recommendation is to find the environmental and economic effects of Wild Horses and Burro overgrazing and to compare those effects with the theoretical situation where all livestock is removed. FYI livestock Grazing Allotments in many HMAs have been drastically reduced or eliminated due to the abundance of Wild Horses. There is a lot of debate of horses vs. cattle and hopefully this study will shine light on how the Wild Horses and Cattle Industry are related economically and environmentally in rural areas.
“Recommend the BLM react to all former Recommendations.” Last Advisory Board Meeting we recommended the BLM use more volunteer organizations to use existing fertility control vaccines to slow the population growth. It blows my mind that the BLM hasn’t embraced this more, something I tried to make very apparent in the meeting.
Overall the meeting was very serious and the recommendations reflect that. The Wild Horse and Burros situation is broken and hard choices must be made. The very worst thing that we can do is to throw our hands in the air, make a facebook comment, and do nothing. As a society, we have drastically altered the planet, species are going extinct, non-native plants pose massive threat to biodiversity, and millions of acres of our beloved public lands are being overgrazed. Unfortunately the public hasn’t stepped up to adopt Wild Horses, the BLM has failed to embrace fertility control, and when I was nominated to the BLM WH&B Advisory Board to help make hard decisions, I entered into sloppy mess. I didn’t want to vote yes for euthanizing wild horses. It was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life. Hopefully private individuals, wild horse advocacy groups, sanctuaries, and organizations will step up to the plate and adopt before euthanasia is necessary. I know that I will adopt as many as I can.
I want to finish this blog on my stated goal for what I want to accomplish for the Wild Horse and Burro Program: “To lower Wild Horse & Burro populations to the Appropriate Management Level and to use humane fertility control methods, applied by volunteers, to slow the population growth of the Wild Horses to the point where if/when gathers are necessary, the amount gathered equals the adoption demand. After rangelands have improved and population growth has been successfully suppressed, AML should be studied and increased if available forage exists.”
I value feedback, comments, and ideas. Collectively we are smarter and collectively we need to work together to have healthy horses, healthy rangelands, and a healthy future. It won’t be easy and it will require unpopular decisions. If you agree or disagree with these recommendations, please let me know.
For Information presented by the National Horse and Burro Rangeland Coalition:
For more information to get certified to dart with birth control:
Adopt a horse or burro here:
Adopt a trained horse or burro:…