Nevada’s wild horses and burros are protected by law and are not ruining public lands

A Nov. 16 letter by the Coalition for Healthy Nevada Lands to the Bureau of Land Management’s national director misrepresents the status of Nevada’s wild horse and burro herds, claiming these have reached crisis overpopulation and urging more large-scale roundups in 2024. This rather hysterical letter was also sent to the Nevada Sagebrush Ecosystem Council for its endorsement. Basically, it defies the true intent of the unanimously passed Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFHBA) by ignoring its (and related laws’) central tenets. 

The act requires the “protection, management and control” of America’s wild horses and burros on public lands, where they were found unbranded and unclaimed in 1971. These legal, year-round habitats are to be “devoted principally to their welfare” not that of cattle or sheep ranchers, mining, energy, big game, OHVers, land developers, etc. Yet all the opposite is happening. On their legal public lands, these equids should be treated as “an integral part of the natural system” and “protected from capture, branding, harassment or death” with criminal penalties, since 1971, of up to $2,000 and/or a year in jail; and, since 1984 with the Sentencing Reform Act, up to $100,000 and/or 10 years in prison. WFHBA’s uncompleted Section 10 authorizes the declaration of study herds to learn how these equids naturally behave and integrate with other species and the land.

The BLM and the US Forest Service should manage the wild equids “to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance” and “at the minimum feasible level.” Also, the seldom used Code of Federal Regulations 4710.5-.6 specifically provides for reducing or canceling livestock privileges on the wild equids’ legal public lands to ensure thriving, healthy herds. Many other exacting provisions of the WFHBA and other laws favor these wild equids and should be used to counter the undermining of their rights, which they actually possess in superior degree to those of ranchers who use public lands. 

As a wildlife ecologist, I have monitored Nevada’s and America’s wild horses and burros and the WFHBA program since 1971. I have sought to achieve government honesty and integrity in upholding the true spirit of this progressive act. But I cannot stand by while people heavily involved in public lands exploitation issue biased information and hyperbole about the wild horses and burros to cripple or eliminate their populations and monopolize their legal habitats.

Public lands exploiters are ruining so many of the natural ecosystems, including by overgrazing and by pumping down major aquifers, thus causing the aridification of much of Nevada and the West, including the drying of springs, streams, lakes and ponds that are the “lifeblood” of the desert. I am particularly concerned about uncontrolled cattle and sheep, including increasing trespassing by out-of-season animals, and their devastating effects.

The coalition’s statement is not an objective take on public land health. It overlooks the major causes of ecosystem degradation or blames the wild equids for this, ignoring that they are very minor presences relative to the major natural resource exploiters. They engage in deceptive “squeeze plays,” often in cahoots with government officials who should be controlling this situation in an enlightened and fair way. 

The relatively minor wild equid herds must not be blamed for what is happening in Nevada and the West. These are natural gardeners who restore the living Earth. Casting aspersions at them ignores so many of the positive contributions of a native species that should be valued as an integral component and enhancer of the public lands ecosystem. 

Nevada—and America—must stop scapegoating these marvelous animals. We must use a “reserve design” approach, which would restore all of the herds to genetically viable levels and allow them to naturally adapt and harmonize within each of their unique and legally protected habitats.

But it’s up to each one of us to make this happen. Please support my reserve design plan (see my Go Fund Me, “Reserve Design for Wild Horses”) and urge BLM and USFS officials and your elected representatives to adopt H.R. 6314, the Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act bill, which could resolve many serious conflicts with ranchers on the legal wild horse and burro habitats and permit genetically viable herds in viable habitats where a proper reserve design could be implemented.

Craig C Downer is a wildlife ecologist and a fourth-generation Nevadan who has observed and defended wild horses and burros since his youth. He has done studies, written two books and many articles, and given input on the subject to government agencies, courts and Congress.