50 years on, here’s how America’s wild horses can be saved

A Conger HMA wild horse band trailing along a ridge heading toward the south, possibly searching out forage or heading toward a water source.
A Conger HMA wild horse band trailing along a ridge heading toward the south, possibly searching out forage or heading toward a water source. “The pintos were so stunning. I am not sure there are any of these left as Conger was heavily helicopter gathered earlier this year.” © Craig C Downer

On December 15, 1971, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was unanimously passed by Congress, and three days later, on December 18, it was given a glowing send-off by President Richard M Nixon during its signing ceremony. Wildlife ecologist Craig C Downer says the coming jubilee must see its rescue.

I believe that getting people to restore wild, naturally living horses and burros in America together with their viable habitats and at truly viable population levels is essential today if America is to pull out of its destructive vortex of selfish and greedy, materialistic speciesism.

Speciesism means only considering one’s own species as important and to regard the rest as all being here merely as things, or objects, to be used and abused or gotten rid of according to people’s selfish wants or whims.

This is no right and moral way and it is leading to the destruction of all life on earth. All life on earth is really one united family that has taken millions of years to establish itself on this planet. To destroy this for a relatively few years of materialistic indulgence is immoral beyond belief. It is a cardinal sin.

The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 that was passed 50 years ago should now be celebrating not lamenting what has happened with America’s magnificent wild, naturally living horses and burros. But unless we change the present state of affairs, this noble and life-enhancing law shall have failed. We cannot allow this to happen. We can make a turnaround and restore the true intent of this good-willed act, but we ourselves must act if we are to save and restore the wild horses and burros, a healthy and balanced life community, and the human race itself.

This jubilee year must see the rescue of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

This means restoring holistically complete habitats for all seasons of the year and that are appropriate for the long-term survival of truly long-term viable populations of interbreeding wild horses and burros who number in the thousands — not the outrageously low and non-viable levels that the BLM and US Forest Service have assigned for them in contradiction of the pure and core intent of the law.

We must break the “agency capture” of this program and get it into the hands of people who really understand, appreciate and care for the wild, naturally living horses and burros and their legal and adequate natural homes. And we must follow the sound principles of reserve design that treat horses and burros and their natural and legal habitats with the enlightened respect that they deserve.

Wild horse restoration is intrinsically important to the future of life on Earth. This has been their home for millions of years, and they have a universally important and indispensable role to play. This role can and must be restored, for it is a healing and restoring role that our planetary life community is in such desperate need of today.

All of my life, horses have been of foremost importance and I grew up riding and caring for a wonderful chestnut stallion named Poco. Together we discovered the mountains, forests, valleys and bushlands of Nevada and California, always keen for new adventures awaiting us just around the corner. Poco taught me so much and saved me and my family so often, because of his great wisdom and attunement to the world of nature.

One shining communication for me stands out. This is Poco’s great longing to live the free and natural life again, in an unfenced and biodiverse place, and to be with his own kind. This became especially apparent when we encountered wild horses and were out riding amid the aromatic sagebrush and pinyon and juniper as well as Sierran ecosystems. Poco came so alive in these and was irrepressible in his desire to run up and greet his fellow wild horses — for every horse is truly wild at heart. Just being there and witnessing this was thrilling and spoke volumes to me.

So now I will convey some of the most important messages and lessons I have learned over a lifetime. These are irrefutable justifications for restoring the wild horses and burros in America and elsewhere. There are many others, but here is what I believe is most crucial to impress upon people today in order to stop the ongoing wipeout and restore these magnificent equines to our shared home of planet Earth.

A band of "Heber" mustangs in the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. The Hebers are popular in the area but are in the sights of the ASNF for near total elimination.
A band of “Heber” mustangs in the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. The Hebers are popular in the area but are in the sights of the ASNF for near-total elimination. © Craig C Downer
  • The WFHBA mandates the just integration of the wild horses and burros into the public land ecosystem as the principal resource recipients and with management and interference at the “minimum feasible level” with their natural lifestyles and habitat (Section 3 (a) of WFHBA).
  • Several other laws, including NEPA, Endangered Species Act, National Historical Preservation Act, FLPMA, PRIA, Administrative Policy Act and Multiple Use Act, should also uphold the rights of wild horses and burros throughout the West to viable populations in viable habitats.
  • The Horse Family, Equidae, is of North American origin as are the Horse Genus, Equus, and species, Equus caballus. The Burro’s (Equus asinus) lineage is also deeply rooted in North America. The origin of the Horse Family traces back some 58 million years. (See MacFadden, B.J. 1992. Fossil Horses: Systematics, Paleobiology, and Evolution of the Family Equidae. Cambridge Univ. Press)
  • Wild, naturally living horses and burros complement North America’s life community in many direct and obvious as well as more subtle ways. (See Chapter II of my book and this article)
  • Their cecal, post-gastric, digestive system enables them to eat coarser, drier vegetation and, through symbiotic microbial activity, to break down cellulose cell walls to derive sufficient nutrients from the inner cell without over-taxing their metabolism.
  • Equids’ frequent consumption of more coarse, drier vegetation can greatly benefit sympatric, pre-gastric, ruminant herbivores as well as energize and enrich the ecosystem as a whole. (See: Facilitation between Bovids and Equids in an African Savanna and Bell, R.H.V. 1970. The use of the herb layer by grazing ungulates in the Serengeti. Animal Populations in Relation to Their Food Source. Brit. Ecol. Soc. Symp.)
  • The lesser decomposed vegetable matter in the droppings of horses, as compared with ruminants, more greatly builds the vital humus component of soils, which enriches these, making them more fertile and water-retentive and, thus, bolstering biodiversity and consequent resilience and stability in the ecosystem.
  • Wild horses and burros play a major role in mitigating and often even preventing major wildfires.
  • These equids act as Keystone species benefiting hundreds, even thousands of species of plants, animals, microorganisms, etc, with which they have co-evolved for centuries, thousands – even millions of years. They are prey and scavenged species that contribute to many important food chains, which include canids, felids, raptors and many other important ecosystem components.
  • Also, during colder seasons, they can open up iced over water holes or ice-crusted vegetation so that many weaker animals can continue to eat and drink. During hot weather, they can sniff-out water sources and dig down to them, even through hard and rocky soils, thus allowing critical access to water for myriad plants and animals. They are great mutualists who, with their powerful and energetic bodies, can open up thickets to allow other animals to move around in bushlands and access important food sources. They also wallow in places such as those with clay where their wallows create natural water catchments, benefiting many plants and animals.
  • Horses can help diminish the invasive Cheat Grass (Bromus tectorum) that has been brought on by extensive disturbance of soils. This they do by eating these plants before they have set seed and by disseminating many other less invasive and native bunch grasses among other forbs and shrubs. (cf. Berger, J. 1986. Wild Horses of the Great Basin; Univ. of Chicago Press.)
  • The rounded blunt hooves of equids cut less deeply and sharply into moist meadow and streamside soils when compared with cloven-hoofed cattle, sheep, elk, deer and pigs (see the preliminary report Impact Of Wild Horses On Wilderness Landscape and Wildfire.
  • Wild horses disperse their grazing pressure over larger areas within their home ranges and, unless forced into it, do not tend to camp around water sources as do domestic cattle in particular. They practice a form of natural rest-rotation. They also forage in a patchy manner, leaving islands of palatable grass, forbs, etc., to set seed. This is an instinctive form of wise rest-rotation that has permitted them to survive for millions of years. (cf. MacFadden, B.J. 1992. Op. cit.)
  • Although the BLM claims there were 53.4 million acres of original acres for wild horses and burros on BLM lands, and at least several million more existed on USFS lands in the 11 Western states at the passage of the Act, BLM now plans to allow these wild equids on only 26.9 million acres. Research has revealed that about 88 million acres actually may have qualified for being legal habitats, as the wild equids were found there in 1971. Yet government agencies allow cattle and sheep to forage on about 300 million acres, which include nearly 100% of the wild horse and burro legal areas and where these agencies on average allocate some 85 to 90% of the forage for livestock. This is a direct violation of Section 2 (c) of the WFHBA, which states that the wild equid legal areas shall be “devoted principally to the welfare and benefit” of the wild horses and burros, not the public land ranchers, oil and gas drillers, big game hunters, miners, ORVers, etc. By sacrificing the general public’s great interest in the wild horses and burros on this quality-of-life issue, they disobey the “Multiple Use” mandate of the Multiple Use Act, FLPMA, PRIA, Endangered Species Act, among others. See “American Herds“.
A graceful grey Spanish-type stallion along with another buckskin mustang running in the Sulphur HMA in Utah in June 2020.
A graceful grey Spanish-type stallion along with another buckskin mustang running in the Sulphur HMA in Utah in June 2020. This is on the east side of the Needles Mountains where Craig undertook his study of the Sulphur and Conger Herd Management Areas. © Craig C Downer
  • In spite of government efforts to conceal the gross inequity involved, “one hundred to one” more accurately describes the resource allocation of livestock and big game in relation to wild equids on the public lands. (See Animal Welfare Institute. 2007. Managing for Extinction: Shortcomings of the Bureau of Land Management’s National Wild Horse and Burro Program.)
  • A major failure of legal duty by federal officials concerns wild equids’ access to water in the West. Yet, when all the wild horse and burro Herd Areas (BLM) and Territories (USFS) were declared and their boundaries determined on the ground, these areas automatically acquired Implied Federal Water Rights for the wild horses and burros. The federal authorities have refused to exercise these rights of the wild horses and burros and ipso facto and ipso jure of the General Public. (See my book The Wild Horse Conspiracy, Ch. IV, Pp. 125-126, interview with retired BLM Wild Horse and Burro Specialist John Phillips.)
  • Two Codes of Federal Regulations (CFR): 4710.5, “Closure to Livestock Grazing” and 4710.6, “Removal of Unauthorized Livestock in or near areas occupied by wild horses and burros” could be, but almost never are, applied to allow viable populations of these wild equids. Also ignored is the legal mandate under 43 CFR 4700.0-6[b]: “… wild horses and burros shall be considered comparably with other resource values in the formulation of [Land Use Plans]”.
  • Public lands domestic livestock produce only 2% to 3% of the meat in beef in the US, and about 4% of the mutton, though more wool, in US (Rogers, P. and J. La Fleur. 1999 (11/7). Cash Cows: Taxes support a Wild West holdover that enriches ranchers and degrades the land. San Jose Mercury News. CA)
  • According to the IUCN Species Survival Commission, Equid Specialist Group: “For captive populations, we recommend a minimum population size [N] of 500 individuals … [but] for wild populations we recommend a minimum size of 2500 individuals.” Yet, BLM and USFS are ignoring this crucial and knowledgeable recommendation from the world’s greatest equid experts and do not even adhere to what seems to be their own standards of from 150 to 200 individuals. (Duncan, P. 1992. Zebras, Asses, and Horses: An Action Plan for the Conservation of Wild Equids. IUCN SSC Equid Specialist Group. Gland Switzerland. Page 5.)
  • Concerning one egregious example of how both the BLM and USFS treat wild horses and burros: in the 784,325-acre Spring Mountain Complex of several wild horse and burro legal HMAs (BLM) and Territories (USFS), the Las Vegas BLM and Toiyabe-Humboldt National Forest team plan to allow for only one individual wild horse per 7615 legal Joint Management Area (JMA) acres and for only one individual wild burro per 5299 legal JMA acres in their “Appropriate Management Level” (AML) assignments. (See my book, Ch. 3, pages 75- 77.) This is but one of many similar, outrageous provisions for our “national heritage species.”
  • In 1859, there were an estimated two to three million wild horses on the plains, prairies, deserts and mountain ranges of the US, but by 1976, five years after the passage of the WFHBA, only about 60,000 remained (Pittman, J. 2008 (2/25). Funds for wild horse lands and care strained. Santa Cruz Sentinel, California.). Although 17,000 is the official figure given by BLM for wild horses on the public lands at the passage of the WFHBA in 1971, this is widely considered to be low by at least a factor of two (cf. Animal Welfare Institute, 2007, cit.).
  • Since the passage of the Burns Amendment to the WFHBA in December 2004, many thousands of wild horses have been shipped over the border from the US to Canada and Mexico, mostly for a cruel and terrorizing end to their lives. (Animal Welfare Institute, 2007. cit.) It is believed that the SAFE bill has a good chance of stopping this in the present 117th US Congress of 2021-2022. Please write and call your Senators and Congressmen: 202-224-3121.
  • America’s wild horse and burro herds have either been reduced to non-viable population levels or totally eliminated in most of their ca. 349 original legal herd areas on BLM lands. (Animal Welfare Institute, 2007. cit.). And an even more outrageous situation exists on US Forest Service lands that should have viable wild horse and burro herds on viable habitats.
  • The smear campaign against the wild horses and burros in the wild and the ruthless infiltration and evisceration of government programs by their enemies count among the most dishonorable and unsupportable happenings today and in American history. What is termed “agency capture” has occurred in our nation’s wild horse and burro program. (See White Paper – Wild Horse Freedom Federation and Stillman, D. 2008. Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston)
  • Of the 177 greatly reduced HMAs throughout the BLM West, a glaring 130, or 73%, have Appropriate Management Levels (AMLs) of less than 150 – many much less than 100 and even in the teens. According to BLM’s own substandard standard of 150 for genetic viability, as of 2020, in California 19 out of 22 HMAs had non-viable AMLs; in Utah: 17 out of 21; in Idaho, 5 out of 6; in Montana: 1 out of 1 (6 of the original 7 Herd Areas had been zeroed out); and in Nevada 67 out of 90 of the scant remaining herds are similarly non-viable. (See Animal Welfare Institute, 2008. Response to Government Accountability Office’s Report, “Bureau of Land Management: Effective Long-term Options Needed to Manage Unadoptable Wild Horses”).
  • The Congressional Research Service reported for FY 2005 that forage eaten on BLM lands by livestock summed to 6,835,458 Animal Unit Months (AUM) contrasting with wild horse and burro consumption of only 381,120 AUMs, or 5.6% that of livestock, about one-20th. On US Forest Service lands, livestock devoured 6.6 million AUMs of forage, much of this in vital headwaters, while wild horses and burros got by on a meager 32,292 AUMs, or 0.5% that allocated to livestock, or one 200th of the forage pie (Animal Welfare Institute, 2007. cit.). And the situation today, 2021, is even much worse due to the gross increase in livestock and livestock trespass on public lands during the Trump Administration and earlier ones. (See Eckhoff, V. 2020. Cattle vs. Wild Horses 2002-2018, All data BLM and this article about the damage caused by the livestock industry.)
  • In the Great Basin by moderately harvesting nutritious nuts from the Pinyon Pines, much more healthy food would result in much less damage to the natural world when compared with raising cattle and sheep in the Great Basin (Wheat, M. M. 1967. Survival Arts of the Primitive Paiutes. Univ. Nevada-Reno). And the same applies to the moderate harvesting of the nutritional Jojoba bush nuts in the more arid deserts of the Southwestern US. And many other examples exist. Yet, BLM is waging a destructive campaign to greatly reduce the Pinyon and Juniper forests of the West to make the West even more of a livestock pasture than it already is. (See the Wild Horse Freedom Federation’s article BLM plan for fuel breaks in Great Basin to cost millions of dollars but will scar public lands and make wildfires worse.)
  • Less than 21% of the terrestrial globe still contains all of the large mammals (greater than 20kg in weight) it supported several centuries ago. And the lack of these large animals who play keystone roles in the ecosystems, including as vital seed dispersers and soil builders, has diminished their resilience, stability and vitality and made them much more vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires – now greatly increasing through Global Warming (Morrison et al. 2007. Persistence of Large Mammal Fauna as Indicators of Global Human Impacts. Journal of Mammalogy 88(6): 1363 – 1380).
  • The range of the wild horse (Equus caballus) ca. AD 1500 was 13.5 million square kilometers compared with the current range of only 3073 sq km for the Prezwalski wild horse alone, representing a loss of almost the entire distribution according to some who ignore the great majority of wild horses throughout the world (Morrison, cit.). However, ca. 40,000 square miles should be added though wild horses still remaining in the Western United States and other impressive acreages could be added for other areas around the world, including Australia. Nevertheless, there exists an enormous vacant niche for the naturally living horse and other equids as well as other Perissodactyls, including tapirs and rhinos, that would be very important to fill and help the living Earth heal now in its time of most dire crisis and “existential threat”.
  • Since the horse has a long co-evolutionary history with many diverse plant and animal companion species in a variety of ecosystems and over an extensive range, its disappearance constitutes a major ecological setback. As a major climax, as well as keystone, species, the horse has helped characterize and assist many of the Earth’s ecosystems and is considered to be an ideal species for restoring degraded ecosystems, not only in North America, its evolutionary cradle, but throughout the world (see Naundrup, P.J. and J.C. Svenning, 2015. A Geographical Assessment of the Global Scope for Rewilding with Wild-Living Horses Equus ferus.
  • The reestablishment of the horse and burro in the North American Great Basin, Great Plains and Prairies, as well as in many suitable western mountains and valleys can help to combat the noxious effects of global climate change by greatly balancing and enhancing the native ecosystems.
  • Wild horses and burros should be restored to their original Herd Areas (HAs) throughout the West, including about 70,000 who are now in government corrals and long-term holding pastures. The legality of their refuges is based upon where they were found in 1971; this should be interpreted as meaning year-round habitats. But these areas are today largely empty of wild equids: a fact that, on the face of it, evinces the gross injustice with which these marvelous animals have been treated.
A stallion from the Conger HMA with Utah Junipers and Sagebrush.
A stallion from the Conger HMA in Utah, surrounded by junipers and sagebrush. This was the subject of Craig’s recent report which included the more famous Sulphur Spanish mustangs and their HMA just to the south of Conger. © Craig C Downer
The major points of Reserve Design

We must restore the wild horse and burro herds and their habitats through Reserve Design and Rewilding in order to allow for long-term genetically viable populations. This can be done in a way that permits these remarkable animals to integrate into their natural habitats and to be naturally self-stabilizing as far as their numbers, i.e. attain a truly “Thriving Natural Ecological Balance” as Section 3 (a) of the WFHBA requires in direct reference to thriving wild horses and burros, not every other exploitive interest before them, as is currently the case. See this article.

This can be achieved by:

  • Letting the equids reoccupy their full legal Herd Areas (BLM) or Territories (USFS) wherever possible and in no case less than 75% of the original 1971 home range.
  • Where a reduction in equid occupation is necessary, there shall be a compensatory acquisition of wild equid habitat of equal or greater value.
  • We shall allow the horses and burros themselves and the world of nature to show us what works best for each given area and allow a natural equilibrium of species to establish itself, including natural predators such as puma, bobcat/lynx, coyote, wolf and bear. Also, all the other herbivores including ruminant deer, elk, pronghorn, bighorn as well as smaller species such as rodents and rabbits, birds and reptiles, would be allowed to realize their respective roles and niches along with a great diversity of plant species. Let these species show us how marvelous a life home, or ecosystem, can be.
  • Codes of Federal Regulations 4710.5 and 4710.6 shall be employed to reduce or curtail livestock grazing within legal BLM Herd Areas and US Forest Service Territories.
  • Mandate purchase at fair and just value of base properties and water rights in conflict with the sound establishment of viable wild horse and burro herds. At first, this can be on a voluntary basis. But if necessary for the survival of the herds, it can be mandated. Of crucial importance today, this would be in sync with the urgent necessity of having naturally living horses and burros occupying greater areas of land in their capacity as major Carbon sequesters. Again, this is related to their different digestive system, which also relates to their greater ability to disperse germinative seeds of a greater variety.
  • Where necessary, employ semi-permeable, artificial barriers in designing each wild horse/burro Herd Area or Territory as the true sanctuary the WFHBA intends. The Log-&-Pole, buckrail-type fences that are employed in Montana BLM’s Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range work quite well.
  • Employ Strieter-Lite light reflectors that prevent collisions of animals with automobiles wherever major roads or highways transit or border wild equid HAs or Territories. (Contact Strieter-Lite representative Julie Keller Keller0404@outlook.com, (775-830-7739).
  • Implement the construction of natural wild horse and wildlife overpasses where necessary.
  • Do not overly restrict the wild equids, as by fencing or other means, within their large, viably sized and complete habitats. Also, make it a policy to minimize or eliminate vehicle impacts, roads, off-road vehicles and impacts from mining, fracking, etc., within the wild equid areas.
  • Design and employ buffer zones around the wild equid HAs, HMAs, and Territories. Here a gradual tapering off of wild equid presence would occur through the implementation of discouragements to their transiting into areas where danger exists for them, such as in farms, towns or cities. This can involve “adverse conditioning” that is not overly harsh as well as “positive reinforcement”. Remember: horses and burros are very intelligent animals who can learn where they are safe and can realize their basic needs for survival and a pleasant and fulfilling life.
  • Employ Sections 4 and 6 of the WFHBA to incorporate lands from other government agencies, including state, county and municipal, as well as private lands, into the HAs, HMAs and Territories. This would be in order for these to contain complete habitats for long-term-viable herds of wild horses and wild burros. In this regard, it is essential that wild horse-and-burro knowledgeable and caring biologists be employed to identify such long-term-viable habitats.
  • Mount a positive, public education campaign with people who live and work around and visit the wild equid habitats so that they will positively participate in the realization of truly long-term-viable wild equid herds and their adequate, commensurate sanctuary habitats. These people could become monitors and protectors of the herds and their habitats and derive benefits, as for example, from ecotourism and/or subsidies from the government. Here a positive attitude from whoever is given authority to protect and manage these animals, is essential if they are to be truly conserved in nature rather than tortured and persecuted while their legal habitats are overrun – as is currently the case. A new agency may well be required that is autonomous and free from long-ingrained anti-wild-horse-and-burro policies. This would require an Act of Congress. In my opinion, the sooner this is introduced, the better, if America is to have any remaining, unobliterated and truly viable herds and habitats.
  • Allow each wild equid herd to fulfill its ecological niche within each Herd Area and Territory. Allow each herd and the complex of species in its habitat to self-stabilize, or auto-regulate, its population. This is entirely consistent with the true nature of wild equids (see Rogovin, K.A. and M.P. Moshkin. 2007. Autoregulation in mammalian populations and stress: an old theme revisited. Zhurnal obschchei biologii. 68(4): 244-267 [In Russian].)
  • Both horses and burros are climax species and capable of self-limitation. They do not expand out of control to destroy their habitat and ultimately themselves, as humanity – now nearing 8 billion people (12/2021, US Census Bureau) — is presently doing. In the mature social units of wild horses known as bands, both the lead stallion, or patron, and the lead mare socially inhibit reproduction among younger members of their band, who are usually their offspring. (See Jenkins, S.H. and M.C. Ashley. 2003. “Wild Horse, Equus caballus, and Allies”, Ch. 53 in Wild mammals of North America: Biology, Management and Conservation. 2nd Editors: G.A. Feldhamer, BC. Thompson and J.A. Chapman. John Hopkins Univ. Press. See pages 1148 to 1163.) [Jenkins was my major professor for my M.S. in Biology at UNR.] Wild naturally living burros also limit their populations through the formation of jack-defended territories.
  • The draconian, herd-gutting roundups, often by helicopter or bait or water-tapping, disrupt these mature social units and destroy this natural form of self-regulation. This is something BLM, USFS and profiteering roundup contractors are loath to admit.
  • When resources and habitat components, including forage, water, shelter, mineral sources, special seasonal habitats and even adequate space, become limiting, horses and burros naturally reduce their reproduction, true to their climax species nature (Rogovin and Moshkin 2007, cit.).
  • Follow the IUCN SSC Equid Specialist Group guidelines that specify 2500 individuals in order to achieve long-term viability for a wild equid population (Duncan 1992, p. 5, cit.).
  • Do not employ invasive castration or ovariectomies, IUDs, nor fertility control drugs such as PZP, GonaCon, etc. These torture and debilitate, genetically alter, cause out-of-season, deformed and still-born births – and often kill – the wild horses and burros. These thoughtless and inhumane procedures undermine the horses’ and burros’ fitness to survive, weaken their immune systems over the generations, cause social disruption and are forms of domestication that are entirely antithetical to the true and core purpose and intent of the WFHBA. Reserve Design is the solution, not this cruel and disrespectful kind of treatment of the wild equids that places them at the very bottom position of priorities within their very own legal areas – where they are supposed to be on top. (See this article and this fact sheet from Protect Mustangs.)
The Sulphur HMA in western Utah showing the east side of the Needles Mountains and a band of wild horses.
The Sulphur HMA in western Utah showing the east side of the Needles Mountains and a band of wild horses. This herd has a high degree of genetically pure Spanish Colonial mustangs, but under the BLM is being targeted for major reduction to accommodate livestock interests. This shows the typical habitat of Basin and Range with Pinyon and Juniper forests – a biome that is also being targeted for major removal in order to accommodate the same livestock interest monopoly. © Craig C Downer
  • Work to have America’s wild horses and wild burros declared as UNESCO World Heritage, as well as in the United States, National Heritage species. Wild horses combine Spanish, Andalusian, Sorraia, Berber, Arab and various, especially northern European, races – even “Curly Horses“. The hardy wild horses and burros have much the same diversity and hybrid vigor as we Americans ourselves.

Remember: In the wild, in the natural biodiverse world that has established itself over the course of millions of years, the true vigor of the species – and the life community we all share – is preserved.

Craig C. Downer is a wildlife ecologist who has specialized in the Mammalian Order Perissodactyla. This order includes the Horse Family, Equidae, as well as the Families Tapiridae and Rhinocerontidae. While earning his M.S. at the University of Nevada-Reno, he did a field study and paper on the Pine Nut Mountain wild horses. Later in his career he did a professional herd and habitat analysis of these unique wild horses, that have a strong Spanish Colonial component. Craig worked with Wild Horse Annie (Velma Bronn Johnston) in the 1970s when the Wild Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFHBA) was first being implemented. He has written books and articles and given speeches and presentations and guided films about wild horses.

As a legal plaintiff in numerous court cases, he has defended the rights of the wild horses and burros throughout America after having investigated their unfair treatment on the public lands throughout the West. His Reserve Design project for restoring the herds and their habitats to viable levels has registered with many people and government agencies and is producing a much-needed turnaround for these magnificent and benign animals. His organization the Andean Tapir Fund / Wild Horse and Burro Fund has awakened many people concerning the many positive contributions these species make to ecosystems as well as concerning their North American origins and long-standing evolution. His dynamic, greater truth- and justice-serving organization upholds the pure intent of the WFHBA. Its website contains his reports, articles, videos and interviews and those of others and provides an important overview on this subject as well as a well-informed and timely call to action. Contact Craig at ccdowner@aol.com (775) 901-2094; PO Box 456, Minden, NV 89423-0456 USA.

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13 thoughts on “50 years on, here’s how America’s wild horses can be saved

  • December 16, 2021 at 2:13 pm

    Have a Wonderful Holiday and Bright 2022! Let’s join together to make this a positive turnaround year for the naturally living horses and burros in America and all over the world. In so many ways, they are true restorers and saviors of precious Life on Earth, which we must not take for granted!

    • December 18, 2021 at 11:54 am

      You are so right Craig! Thank you for all you are doing for them and your wonderful informative articles!

  • December 17, 2021 at 8:27 am

    Dear Craig:

    If only our society was following a different path, one that does not worship money, driven by ego.

    But its not. That’s a fact.

    Sadly, economics and the law of ‘supply and demand’ provide the overarching and immutable power and influence over American politics, resulting in the flawed management of natural resources in America.

    ‘Consumers’ and consumerism are killing the planet and wild horses. And we are all ‘consumers’ to one extent or another…

    When you figure out a PRACTICAL way to get the 97% of Americans that demand livestock based products, to stop buying them, you let me know!

    In a perfect world, wild horses would have never been removed from the 53-million acres allotted and assigned to wild horses under the 1971 Act to protect wild horses and burros…..

    However, we do not live in a perfect world, never have, never will.

    Going back millennia in the history of human society and culture, we see people doing wrong, unbridled corruption in politics and government, and nothing has changed since the fall of Rome.

    Our society simply puts lipstick on that pig, and moves forward, pretending everything is just fine.

    You are well behind the curve my friend with preaching world change…

    Our greatest Theologists and Philosophers (a very long list of men and women) have been hard at work there for centuries….. what is result?

    Humankind is more brutal, sinister, uncaring, greedier and ego-centric than ever.

    Unfortunately Range Design is a non-starter, regardless of all the reasons anyone can list. And a long list of reasons doesn’t change anything in the real world of socioeconomics.

    Recently, I was asked to do an interview with a former Wall Street lobbyist, who is now rescuing sea turtles and advocating to save wild horses. Staci-lee Sherwood and I discussed the issues, including why Range Design is just a non-starter, are covered in a little detail:

    HERE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyxCx5M4vj4

    This article (just below), covers the BIG picture, which unfortunately eludes you, otherwise you would have shelved the idea long ago…

    ‘Economics vs. Wild Horses: A Management Conundrum with A Silver Lining’: Published at RT Fitch:


    I see that it will be hard for you to comprehend the gravity of scope of power and influence that the $10-Trillion/year (U.S. alone) multi-national corporations have, and how THEY actually run the show here in America and around the world.

    You would do well to get started on gaining some genuine appreciation for that Massive fly in the ointment for Range Design.

    It’s just folly for anyone to think they can somehow direct a ~$10-Trillion dollar/year Goliath to change how they are doing business… it would probably be easier to change the orbit of the moon around the earth…

    Litigation against the government and corporations have been tried ad-nausea… thousands of lawsuits have been used… and what has that achieved? End Result: Largest roundups in history and wild horses circling the drain. WAKE UP!

    In order to actually save wild horses, while there’s still sand in their hourglass, we must align behind a plan that the $10-Trillion/year corp. giants will see as agreeable to them as well…. that is the reality.

    At this 11th hour in the battle to save America’s remaining wild horses (and burros), proffering concepts that are based upon wishful thinking are non-starters will merely distract people trying to help from the path and plan that can actually save wild horses, and like the band-aid of PZP and roundups, will just get more wild horses and burros removed from the landscape and killed.

    I can understand why you have great difficulty grasping the economic realities:

    You have zero-experience in corporate business, which leaves a huge hole in your ability to fully identify and comprehend the reasons why the advocacy has failed miserably to save wild horses and keep them unmolested, ‘wild and free’, after 40-years of activism and nearly $100-million in donations. FAILED!

    And as you have cited yourself, you have been involved with trying to save wild horses for the past 40+ years as well… Nevertheless, wild horses are circling the drain. That should give you a big clue…

    Doing the same things over and over without the desired result should be a wake-up call, telling you that you just don’t have the holistic overview that is requisite in order to tender a workable, practical solution. Hence, wild horses are circling the drain.

    After just spending $59-million in taxpayer dollars (FY 2021) rounding-up wild horses from HMAs, the posit that they should then be put back into the areas where they were recently removed is just fairy-tale thinking and shows a total disconnect from the realities. The Marr Plan posits the same thing… and it also comes from the mind of another well-meaning man with no corporate experience, who also fails in understanding the big picture.

    This Newsweek article may help you to understand what’s gone wrong, and how to become more effective:

    In closing, the Solution that can save America’s wild horses, with the blessings of a majority of economic stakeholders and wild horse advocates was cited in this article from Colorado’s Pagosa Daily Post:


    In closing, wild horses need an immediate and practical plan that is acceptable to a majority of stakeholders, with emphasis on the corporate giants who are calling all the shots, in order to save wild horses, not wishful thinking.

    The ‘NATURAL WILDFIRE ABATEMENT AND FOREST PROTECTION PLAN’ (aka: Wild Horse Fire Brigade) is a plan that rewilds and relocates wild horses into designated wilderness areas, where they can live unmolested, wild and free as an integral part of the public lands, pursuant to the intent of the 1971 Act.

    Sincerely, William E. Simpson II – Naturalist
    Living-among and studying free-roaming wild horses

  • December 18, 2021 at 1:19 pm

    We have to speak up and change the paradigm to save the planet and all its creatures , most people do not understand that the diversity of nature creates a healthy talent and health for us , we need to educate fast and be loud and speak up to stop this Terri

    • December 27, 2021 at 7:51 am

      So true and excellent admonition, Terri!

  • December 22, 2021 at 1:52 pm

    I appreciate the respectfully given comments to my article, but I must strongly disagree with the draconian approach to how people should live on this beautiful planet Earth. Also, I would like to correct Mr. Simpson on the use of the term “Range Design”. This is incorrect. What I advocate for is the “Reserve Design” strategy for allowing horses and burros to realize their respective ecological niches upon the public lands and adjoining lands that can come to constitute complete and long-term-viable habitats for complete and long-term-viable herds of interbreeding horses/burros. It is wrong to bombastically deride what IS the solution to our problems here on this planet. This concerns peoples learning to pull in their arrogant horns and overcome their woeful disharmony with the Great Rest of Life and sincerely and conscientiously putting forth and all-out effort to rectify our way of life here. Merely bowing down to a corrupt status quo is not going to solve this gravely threatening crisis to all of planetary life today, but rather confronting this and refusing to be manipulated by it. Rather we must strike out on our own and show the monsters that they are not God — far from it — and that God’s will on Earth IS as it is in Heaven! Praise God! And Hallelujah! shout.

    • December 24, 2021 at 5:29 pm

      Poco’s desire to run with his wild native pack is the calling our culture needs to remember, recover and restore. Until we honor the natural wild within all beings, the wildlife struggling to live in alignment to natural law will continue to be misunderstood, compromised and treated as disposable fodder for ‘our’ greedy self-serving and destructive fire.

      • December 27, 2021 at 7:49 am

        I so agree with you, Jacquie! This will be the key transformation that will save Life on Earth, a learning to acknowledge and respect the true nature of any animal or plant too for that matter. In the Light of a Better Tomorrow — Happy New Year!

  • December 30, 2021 at 8:48 am

    As a concerned citizen, I agree with the comments of those who have said that the wild horses provide many biological advantages that might help mitigate wildfires. Among other things, their unique digestive systems help provide moisture to the soil and reseed native plants and trees. Their natural tendency to move from one area to another rather than overstaying in one place further adds to the benefits they provide.

    The idea of placing wild horses in wilderness areas is an interesting theory though some aspects of this could be problematic.

    First, I have yet to hear a broad consensus among various agencies and stakeholders that they are wanted in vaguely defined “wilderness” areas. Moreover, anti-wild horse sentiment is so prevalent, and they are so frequently scapegoated by various groups and individuals for things that have no basis in reality, that I don’t know how much public support there would be for placing them in wilderness areas. Indeed, there may be opposition to an extent that the relocated horses could be in danger and far from the public eye.

    Second, history is often a good predictor of the future, and I believe without significant legal protections, the long-term survival in these non-HMA areas would be questionable, not least due to those who might resent them as introduced species.

    Over the years I have spoken with wildlife ecologists about the ecological benefits of the wild horses to our public lands, believe they are a key part of these ecosystems, and like them, believe we must strongly advocate for the protection of these magnificent animals on our public lands which is in step with the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act. Among other things, this Act mandates that the wild horses and burros be protected on these ever-shrinking public lands, and I agree that this is the right thing to do.

    Especially at this pivotal time, when climate change is contributing to increased and volatility of wildfires, and where the reseeding of beneficial trees and plants are critical for maintaining more moisture to these ecosystems, it is more important than ever to advocate for the wild horses’ protection on our public lands. Indeed, we need their help now more than ever, but our public policy is removing them in record numbers and at record costs to the taxpaying public.

    Craig Downer and other internationally recognized wildlife ecologists have promoted Reserve Design and Rewilding for a number of years, so it is nothing new or abstract, but rather has shown on a global basis to reinvigorate damaged ecosystems, site by site. As such, I believe this is a very viable methodology and mechanism that can be utilized as more stakeholders and members of the public become aware of its advantages and benefits, and insist on its implementation on America’s public lands.
    Our wild horses are part of our inherited treasures. I believe we need to better support them and their ecosystems to better those who follow us.

    Ronn Brourman, MBA

  • January 1, 2022 at 6:01 am

    Thanks Mr Brourman for your fair and balanced comment and for standing up for the true and core intent of the WFHBA which is consistent with Reserve Design and Rewilding.

  • January 25, 2022 at 11:36 am

    Story is the nervous system that connects us. Thank you Craig for leading by example on how we can live in another more inclusive Story. Everything you are proposing is possible right now in this cosmic moment of time we collectively hold in place.

  • November 14, 2022 at 9:07 am

    Thanks so much for your positive and affirmative comment, Jacquie. We can attain a much better way of life, one of true appreciation and sharing with all the diverse yet interrelated species and conscious presences, but we must believe in this and set for to realize it in our lives. It is a most urgent goal that can revive humanity and revive the life community on Earth, etc. In the Light of a Better Tomorrow! Sincerely, Craig

  • May 13, 2023 at 5:25 pm

    The so called “path forward” continues on BLM and USFS land as of mid May, 2023, and the roundup schedule for this year continues at a devastating level. The points made in this article remain very valid and I and others during the Save Our Wild Horses Rally in Washington during the last part of April were promoting a halt to the devastating roundups and the institution of a major reform in the program. I presented to many there in the halls of power the points of this article and others and most seemed to be listening — which is a good thing and encouraging sign.


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