America’s wild horses face elimination in govt’s “path forward” plan

Members of a wild horse band on the Pine Nut Mountain HMA in western Nevada.
Members of a wild horse band on the Pine Nut Mountain HMA in western Nevada. © Craig C Downer

As the US Senate considers a $102 million proposal to reduce wild horse numbers in the west, wildlife ecologist Craig Downer makes a plea for urgent action to save the mustang herds from being gutted and their numbers reduced to unviable levels.

The unanimously passed Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 (WFHBA) should be protecting America’s last remaining wild horses and burros. But our federal government has been either eliminating or reducing them to mere token, non-viable population levels upon their legal Herd Areas (BLM-USDI) or Territories (US Forest Service).

Here they are supposed to be the “principal” presences, yet they continue to be victimized because of the selfish demands of public lands ranchers, big game hunters and other “resource” monopolisers.

The proposed $102-million budget for the coming year’s wild horse and burro program is now being considered by the Appropriations Committee of the US Senate. In 2020 alone, contractors with the federal government are proceeding to gather 12,584 wild equids and remove 11,400 from states throughout the West. According to the deceptively named “Path Forward” now before Congress, similar large-scale roundups would proceed over the next decade. This plan would obliterate America’s remaining herds, reducing them from a very modest level of about 60,000 to around a third of this, or 20,000. When spread out over about 200 remaining herds that have not been zeroed out, this represents around 100 wild equids per Herd Area, or Territory. Since each area usually contains thousands, sometimes even millions of acres, the gross injustice being perpetrated upon our nation’s last wild horses and burros becomes apparent. We must urge our Senators to oppose this outrageous attack on our free-living mustangs and burros and their legal habitats before it becomes too late.

BLM and USFS officials have been using deceptive and distorted information couched in hysterical, demagogic language. This they do in order to foment a false narrative concerning America’s relatively few remaining wild horses and burros. If their plan goes forward, after the herds are gutted, those horses and burros who remain would be subject to intensive semi or full sterilization treatments that would take the “wild” out of our wild horses and burros. This would be entirely contrary to the true spirit and intent of the WFHBA. Such would not be “A Path Forward” but a shameless and hypocritical mockery of the laws of our nation including also NEPA, FLPMA, PRIA, Multiple Use & Sustainability Act and the Administrative Procedure Act. If carried out, this plan would cripple the horses’ and burros’ ability to survive in the wild by converting their legal Herd Areas and Territories into intensive livestock operations with frequent allotment fencing and cross fencing aimed at maximizing cattle and sheep production and, though to a lesser degree, big-game hunter harvest. The equivalent of several million year-round cattle and sheep and many million deer, elk and other game animals are deliberately given grossly favored advantages while a tiny minority of wild horses and burros are persecuted, overly reduced and even eliminated using the misapplied pseudo-justification of “over-population”, “over-grazing” and “habitat destruction” that are, in fact, being caused by a variety of other factors, principal of which is public lands livestock ranching, but also including wildfires, off-highway vehicles, trespass livestock, illegal plunder of plants and animals on the public lands, mining, energy development, monopolization and diversion/draw-down of water tables -– and the list goes on.

A wary wild horse band on the Pint Nut Mountain HMA during a solar eclipse.
A wary wild horse band on the Pine Nut Mountain HMA during a solar eclipse. © Craig C Downer

To scapegoat wild horses and burros for these abuses, to blame these animals who, in fact, restore the public lands life communities, is dishonest and mean-spirited. (See J.M. Ladendorf. 8/31/2016. The Ecological Impact of Horses as a Keystone Species Critical to the Regeneration of the Earth. VENews. Also: S. Luokkala. 10/26/2015. Casualties of the Vanishing West: The American wild horse continues to lose habitat to special interest groups. Earth Island Journal. Also ask me for my professional reports on various herds throughout the west, including the Pine Nut Mountain horse herd where I did an extensive ecological study listing disturbance factors.)

Now, to describe in further detail what is happening. The massive helicopter drives terrorize the horses and burros. These mercilessly jerk them from their natural habitats where they have become adapted over the generations, causing injury and even death among a significant number of those gathered. Being rounded up by the giant, whirring metal machines traumatizes the animals; those who survive suffer a persistent form of PTSD that causes them much suffering and anguish for the rest of their lives. Whenever they hear the whir of a helicopter, they panic. Many drop dead in the holding facilities where they are subsequently amassed, such as the one in Palomino Valley just north of Reno, Nevada, where I go to commiserate and lend them some modicum of moral support.

Plainly, our public servants in the BLM and Forest Service are miserably failing to uphold the basic rights of our cherished wild horses and burros, including their long-term survival in viable habitats and their free-roaming lifestyles. They are allowing over-fencing within their legal areas in order to accommodate cattle and sheep ranchers and other exploitive interests (e.g. the vast Owyhee Desert Herd Management Areas (HMA) in northern Nevada, southern Oregon and parts of Idaho). Also, they often fail to secure the water sources that are needed by these “national heritage species,” giving these waters over to lavish sprinkler-irrigated alfalfa fields of ranchers or mining operations that squander enormous quantities of water (e.g. the Bald Mountain Mine within eastern Nevada’s Triple B HMA). By relinquishing these and other vital habitat necessities, including highland summer (e.g. Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range) and lower winter valley or piedmont habitats (e.g. Black Rock East Wild Horse HMA), our public servants put the squeeze on the horses and burros.

A cow and calf in the BLM's Three Fingers Wild Horse HMA in Oregon in June 2017.
A cow and calf in the BLM’s Three Fingers Wild Horse HMA in Oregon in June 2017. © Craig C Downer

The hypocritical Herd Management Plans (HMP) these agencies put out for public review are fraught with negative spin against the naturally living horses and burros and almost always aim to either cripple or eliminate the herds. These plans accommodate the insatiable demands of pushy public lands ranchers, a segment of American society that has been unjustly favored similarly to how a spoiled child is treated. Often these people are incredibly wealthy and almost always incorporated. They are enormously subsidized by the US taxpayer and given practically interest-free loans by banks and government loaning agencies. Under the antiquated Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, they pay only the minimum (practically free) fee of $1.35 per cow-calf pair for what are supposed to be cancellable grazing privileges – not rights – upon our public lands.  (See Eckhoff, V. Cattle vs. Wild Horses (2002-2018). All Data BLM. The Daily Pitchfork. October 9, 2018)

Naturally living horses and burros play key roles in the public lands’ ecosystems, restoring humus in soils and dispersing intact seeds to a greater degree than is the case with ruminant herbivores. Hence, they actually benefit these, because they restore a more wholesome balance within the communities they inhabit. They also greatly reduce dry flammable vegetation and mitigate against and often even prevent catastrophic wildfires – now on the increase because of mounting global warming. This has to do with their different caecal, as opposed to ruminant, digestive system, their greater mobility, upper incisors and blunt, rounded hooves, among other factors I write about in my book The Wild Horse Conspiracy.

The early summer 2020 “Numbers Wildfire” in the south-central Pine Nut Mountain Range burned more than 20,000 acres and tore through valuable Pinyon Pine and Juniper groves, streamside riparian habitats and vital spring meadow headwaters, undermining soil integrity and polluting the air all the way to South Dakota. As a wildlife ecologist who has observed the Pine Nut mustangs and their Pine Nut Mountain habitat all of my life and undertaken professional studies, I believe this fire could have been prevented if the Carson City BLM had allowed more wild horses to remain in this part of their original 1971 Herd Area. Rather, they reduced the Pine Nut Mountain Herd Area from 251,792 to 104,316 acres and declared a so-called Appropriate Management Level of between only 118 (low end) and 179 (high end) horses, which is far below the 2500 individuals recommended for viability in nature by the IUCN Species Survival Commission Equid Specialist Group, and which the original Pine Nut Mountain Herd Area easily could have accommodated.

Dark, profuse, billowing smoke arising from the Pine Nut Mountain forest, shrubland and meadow life communities.
Dark, profuse, billowing smoke arising from the Pine Nut Mountain area’s “Numbers Wildfire” around mid-June, 2020.

Wild horses and burros are restored North American native species whose lineages trace back millions of years upon this continent. They are “keystone” restorers of native species diversity and enhance the ecosystems they live in, making them more resilient to imminent changes, such as global warming. These facts were recognized by the WFHBA when it mandated the horses being recognized as “integral” parts of the public lands ecosystem not to be merely treated as escaped domestic livestock and branded as “feral”. Rather than cruelly denying them their adequate habitat requirements for long-term genetically viable populations, and rather than working to further reduce or even zero them out from their legal areas or reduce them to sterilized or semi-sterilized, basically crippled herds barely carrying on at mere token, non-viable levels, America should be reducing livestock, taking down fences and restoring viable populations back within their legal Herd Areas and Territories across the West.  And a truly wise and caring Reserve Design approach to realizing genetically viable, ecologically well-adapted and naturally self-stabilizing herds should be employed, not the present perversion of the WFHBA. This would involve identifying complete, long-term-viable habitats, incorporating natural and other type barriers, restoring natural predators and allowing mature social units, or bands, to become established. The older horses are also vital educators of their young and harmonizers with their natural home due to their acquired as well as inherited knowledge of how to survive where they have lived for generations.

• Please contact your US Senator to stop the crippling of America’s last remaining naturally living mustangs and burros. Call (202) 224-3121 and ask for your senator. Urge him/her to vote against the $102-million for wild horse and burro elimination. This is part of the current Appropriations bill now being considered.

» More on Craig Downer’s Reserve Design proposal

A pioneer-descended Nevadan, as a boy Craig Downer fell in love with the natural world, oft while riding his best friend Poco. This passion led him to pursue a career in wildlife ecology and to earn an A.B. in Biology with specialization in Ecology from the University of California-Berkeley, an M.S. from the University of Nevada-Reno, and to attain Ph.D. candidature at Durham University in Britain. His studies and observations of wild horses led him to work with Wild Horse Annie in insisting that the true intent of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act be implemented throughout America. He served as a Peace Corps wildlife ecologist in Colombia and is the first biologist to have successfully captured, radio-collared and tracked the endangered Mountain, or Andean, Tapir as part of his doctorate studies, His organization, the Andean Tapir Fund, continues to successfully defend and protect this dwindling species, along with its diminishing cloud forest and paramo habitats. The Andean Tapir Fund has now adopted within its mandate “preserving and restoring all of the Perissodactyls in and together with their natural habitats including all species within the Horse, Tapir and Rhino families.” Craig is a member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission and his organization works to save all members of the Horse, Tapir and Rhino families (Order Perissodactyla) in their natural habitats. Visit Craig’s website.



7 thoughts on “America’s wild horses face elimination in govt’s “path forward” plan

  • August 15, 2020 at 10:32 am

    Thanks for publishing this urgent plea. I hope those considering how jeopardized these wonderful equids are will speak up and prevent this deceptive anti-wild-horse-and-burro plan.

  • August 17, 2020 at 8:20 pm

    I want to help. My ‘career’ was Advsersly affected by COVID-19/Pandemic and I have been looking a way to find land that backs up to or is adjacent to BLM Wild Mustangs….There are many personal reasons I am on a quest to leave a over run city and seek some ‘elbow room’ and finally fuel my passion for the protection of animals, especially our most iconic symbol of Freedom, the Wild Mustang.

    I was shocked to see the article and cannot believe what is on the table….systematic (path forward) extermination and nothing more than a holocost for the remaining Wild Horses & Burros. What a world we live in…?

    I like the Mustangs, will soon be homeless and with lack of work for my particular age/sex/skills, I might as well be a Mustang; because the Government has created such a ‘gray area’ for someone like myself.

    If it is alright to ‘peaceful protest’ which in Seattle equates to months of protest, looting and vandalism; I watched ‘opportunists’ brazenly break windows and rush store carrying thousands of dollars in merchandise …smiling as if they were some how ‘entitled’.

    Well, I propose a new hashtag movement #WMM (Wild Mustangs Matter) and I would like nothing more than to chain myself to the rail of the helicopter so they could not take off; I would relish in breaking down every holding pen.

    One time, I was at a large horse show back east; the Budweiser Clydesdales were there and I was remarking on the fact their stalls seemed awfully small given their magestic size; after a couple glasses of wine, I was adament I was going to ‘Free the Clydesdales’….(by the way, this never happened)

    I guess, I am trying to say, I am passionate about some things…..quite passionate. I wonder if the Universe is leading me in a new direction and showing me it is time to follow my passions?

    I don’t know, one might descibe me as flat broke and likely will be required to move when WA State’s moratorium on evictions expires on OCT 15th. Truthfully, I had just ‘recovered’ my salary from the 2009 economic disaster; earning just shy of that coveted 6 figures.

    Overnight my career was torpedoed and given the lack of ‘opportunities’ that will sustain me, there is little doubt, I have any likelihood of a ‘new normal’ 9-5 career and frankly I have no more reinventions left in me.

    I suffer from some health issues that make it difficult to be in Multi-Family housing much longer and wanting to be closer to nature and be able to see the Wild Horses would feed my soul and dream creating a Micro-Ranchette community of like minded, eco-conscious (not necessarily completely off grid and hard core homesteading, but sort of in some ways.

    I have a high toxic burden which has been elevated since spending more time indoors and need to build a home, that is very specific and constructed with non-toxic materials. It would also have a friendly footprint….I guess, I wanted to be able to heal and maybe document bands or sneak them onto ‘my land’ during round ups (in my dream, they all stick their tongues out at the BLM)

    I love Madeline Pickens concept and envison something for more ‘average’ income and permanent housing, sharing some ‘community duties’ with the goal of respecting, managing, enhancing and protecting the habitat / range lands.

    Just a few homes (1 per 5 acres?); ranging from a YERT, Tiny Homes and modular (nicer ones)
    Myself, I kept going back and forth on the Tiny Homes; love the idea, but difficult to find land that allows them…?

    I guess that isn’t too far fetched when you consider how something affordable is untimately designed to be impossible by the government/state regulations.

    For me, I know I need a mainfloor master and full sized appliances….definately under 1,000 sf. What I liked about having a Tiny House on wheels, they would ideal as ‘get away’ option, incase of wildfires….

    Yet, in the end, I found a super amazing pre-fab non toxic home option (hoping, my Fairy Godmother appears soon and waves her magic wand so I can achieve this goal).

    I imagine waking up to see these wild horses running the range…just outside my kitchen window.
    Since, ‘Goat Yoga’ is a real thing…why not wild horse yoga? pilates on wild horse plateau?

    One of my out buildings, was going to be a dedicated ‘wellness studio’ and I just imagine myself taking in the beauty of the landscape, that includes these magestic creatures in their native habitat…what a way to welcome the day.

    Perhaps, the property could offer nature awareness weekends…photo safari experience which provided education about wild horses & burros and how they positively inpact the enviroment are a vital part of the eco system.

    They have been airlifting mountain goats from the Olympic National Forest (one by one) to ‘reintroduce’ them to other areas of WA. (no trauma in that ride) There was even some brief discussion of bringing in Grizzly Bears…(um, I am not sure, I think the fear factor of Grizzlies and Black Bears with Mountain Lions, all on the same trail, might be too much predator for me.)

    Well, I have definately digressed; it would be great if I could some how make a difference. I know there are many ways someone can contribute; writing/calling Senators, Government etc. Unfortunately, I am not in a position right now to contribute finacially, unless, someone wants to ‘gift me a little land’ next door to one of the wild horse ranges….I will sell everything I have tomorrow and become the Mustangs most vocal advocate.

    If there are like minded souls, determined to make a difference and save the Wild Horses & Burros perhaps, this type of protective community would benefit from pooling funds to collectively purchase land adjacent to key BLM round up sites?

    I am not talking any religous commune or anything like that; no hard core HOA rules (except no smoking) or mandatory meals/chores. I would align with like minded souls who want to make a difference and willing to work for shared ‘resources’ to share collectively; see a joint effort with a common goal could be very impactful and that advantage could go a long way in collective conservation efforts, for these lands and these animals… I am open to sharing more of my ‘dream’.

    Disclaimer: No alcohol involved rant….most likely, the isolation and lack of conversation got the better of me and definition of ‘comment’ versus, perhaps, that beginnings of a mini novel.
    Peace and kindness to all and God Save the Mustangs!! #WMM

    • January 5, 2021 at 10:12 am


  • August 17, 2020 at 8:35 pm

    I have been reading Mr. Fitch’s reports for some time now and have written to my senators that I oppose funding for the requested $102 million for the sterilization plan and why I oppose it. I cannot believe that we could turn our backs on the wild horses and burros!

  • August 19, 2020 at 3:43 pm

    The horses are more native to the land of the west than cows and sheep. The horses are supposed to be protected by the government not hunted by them. They are on PUBLIC LAND! It is not RANCHERS LAND!

  • September 9, 2020 at 4:50 pm

    Comments are due tomorrow September 9, 2020 to the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board. Be sure to put “Advisory Board Comment” in the subject line. The email address to write to is Remember the points in my above article and others you know of. Thanks for standing up. There is a live streamed meeting on Sept 24 and 25 at which I will be testifying. this live meeting can be accessed at

  • November 3, 2020 at 9:29 am

    Mega Thx, Craig…I can’t get this reply to “send”! I met U several yrs ago at an ISPMB gathering.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *