Are sanctuaries an acceptable solution for “excess” wild horses?

Two members of the wild horse herd near the Simpson ranch in the mountains of the Oregon-California border.
Two members of the wild horse herd near the Simpson ranch in the mountains of the Oregon-California border. © Laura Simpson

In response to the article by H. Alan Day, How a rancher saved 1500 wild horses, I offer the question and reply; are sanctuaries a sustainable solution for the longstanding dilemma faced by American wild horses? I think not; at best they are a band-aid. Here’s why.
1) Under this so-called ‘proven methodology’ (cited in the article), wild horses and burros are nonetheless rounded-up and families are split up. This alone is reason enough to say ‘NO’ for people who understand wild horses and requires that another option for dealing with excess wild horses be undertaken where families are kept together; there is such a plan called ‘Wild Horse Fire Brigade

The excess wild horse problem is an obtuse man-created problem caused by the unnatural practice of forcing and managing wild horses into areas long-ago depleted of the evolved natural predators of wild equids for the purposes of commercial livestock production. Wild horses are literally robbed of the critically important function of ‘natural selection’ which selects against poor genetics naturally as it also controls the population.

2) ‘Return To Confinement’: this is just a draconian idea proffered by some as ‘humane treatment’ of highly intelligent sentient beings. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) camps come to mind here … Wild Horses (and burros) are, after being brutally rounded-up, separated from family and suffer stress. Stallions are removed from their family jewels (the all-important genetics), while mares may be treated with either PZP or GonaCon, which interrupts normal social behaviors in family bands among even more concerning side-effects, according to Dr. Cassandra Nuñez¹.

Black and his lead mare Lucy.
Black and his lead mare Lucy, at Wildhorse Ranch. © Laura Simpson

One perspective of the so-called sanctuaries being hastily created is that of large confinement areas that are filled with captured wild horses – the walking-dead. And I say walking-dead because once removed from the wild and modified by man using drugs and other methods to minimize breeding and interrupt evolutionary-evolved behavioral ecology and social structure, such horses are no longer wild horses. They are destined to walk around these confinements until they die; a sad testimony to the current lack of vision by a handful of people.

An excerpt from a recent article by Michael Harris (Wildlife Law Program Director at Friends of the Animals) cites the same perspective: “What is ignored by the pro-PZP community is that wild horses darted with PZP to inhibit their ability to naturally reproduce aren’t really, well, “wild” anymore. “Wild,” means “living in a state of nature” as opposed to being “tamed or domesticated” to be more useful to humans. Accordingly, opposition to PZP is based on an ethical belief that wild animals should be free of human manipulation.”

3) Wild horses are critical evolutionary symbionts on the landscape and their presence on the landscape as grazing large-bodied herbivores greatly benefits the re-seeding of native species plants as well as reducing excessive wildfire ground-fuel loading, as empirically proven at Wild Horse Ranch during the deadly Klamathon Wildfire. Here is a nine-minute lesson in the Natural History of native species American wild horses:

4) Even the existence of sanctuaries willing to accept hundreds or thousands of wild horses accommodates the posits of wildlife managers becoming the path of least resistance to extinction. Even though such confinements (‘sanctuaries’) currently offer a solution better than death in a slaughterhouse or via euthanasia, sanctuaries are far from ever being close to an ideal solution.

5) Sanctuaries cost the public one way or another: Subsidized sanctuaries (off-range holding) are merely another means to monetize the ongoing plight of American wild horses and the BLM wild horse mismanagement problem at the expense of taxpayers. When the BLM is paying landowners (a for-profit model) to warehouse American wild horses, this is nothing new and has been done for decades. Non-profit rescues and sanctuaries are already hard-pressed to survive the daily struggle for donations to pay bills related to their warehousing of wild horses and burros.

Majestic, one of the wild stallions of Wildhorse Ranch.
Majestic, one of the wild stallions of Wildhorse Ranch. © Laura Simpson

Re-wilding family bands intact (stallions with harem) into suitable remote wilderness areas makes both ecological and economic sense. These genuine wilderness areas will never be used for livestock production due to costly transport and management logistics issues stemming from remote location and rugged terrain, coupled with fully functional trophic cascades supporting robust apex predator populations, which in such areas would eat-deeply into any livestock herds and profits.

Re-wilding American wild horses and burros into appropriate wilderness areas is, unlike any sanctuary model, a cash-positive program. Wild horses take care of themselves as they had for millennia on the landscape (and still do in a few places today) and also provide very valuable wildfire grazing services in critical areas, thereby protecting forests, wildlife, habitat, watersheds.

Maybe as importantly, the grazing of vegetation and resulting scientifically proven reduction of wildfires keep carbon compounds sequestered in soils that would otherwise be volatilized and released into the atmosphere as hundreds of millions of tons of annual greenhouse gases produced during catastrophic wildfires that occur on landscapes with depleted large-bodied herbivore populations. More here.

I say: Lets “Make America Wild Again” (#MAWA) via re-wilding native species American wild horses using Wild Horse Fire Brigade².

Recently I spoke about this plan and a new natural history documentary out of Colorado College in an April 23 TV interview with Perry Atkinson on theDoveTV. Here is that interview.

We can do much better than management using a return to confinement model. And we owe it to our own honor and integrity to deal with American wild horses in a manner befitting of their long-storied service to mankind. Let’s show a little initiative for a change?



2 The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California recognized wild horses as native species, explaining that BLM “establishes Appropriate Management Levels (“AMLs”) for populations of native species – including wild horses, burros, and other wildlife – and introduced animals, such as livestock.” In Defense of Animals, et al. v. U.S. Dept. Interior, et al., No. 12-17804, *6 (9th Cir. May 12, 2014). On Sep 28, 2011 (See Craters AR at 16698. Memorandum Decision & Order) the court addressed “sensitive” species pursuant to BLM’s 2001 Special Status Species Policy. This Policy requires that “sensitive” species be afforded, at a minimum, the same protections as candidate species for listing under the ESA. It called on BLM managers to “obtain and use the best available information deemed necessary to evaluate the status of special status species in areas affected by land use plans …” See Policy at § 6840.22A. Under the Policy, those land use plans “shall be sufficiently detailed to identify and resolve significant land use conflicts with special status species without deferring conflict resolution to implementation-level planning.”

William E. Simpson

William Simpson is the author of Dark Stallions - Legend of the Centaurians, proceeds from which go towards supporting wild and domestic horse rescue and sanctuary. » Read Bill's profile

One thought on “Are sanctuaries an acceptable solution for “excess” wild horses?

  • May 4, 2019 at 8:33 pm

    Some real fine arguments here. Let’s have some honor and do right by the naturally living horses and burros and give them a place where they belong and will do so much good in the form of fire prevention, soil building, seeding of plants and general enhancement of the life community. I just want to see it happen and these wonderful horses no longer being jerked around treated like misfits — when all the opposite is true!


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