PHOTO/AMERICAN WILD HORSE CAMPAIGN: Helicopters are used to chase mustang herds into traps during "gathers." The roundups have been conducted on land designated as management areas for the federally-protected wild horses and burros.

America’s last remaining wild horses and burros are being unjustly and drastically rounded up, mainly by means of being brutally chased by helicopters into makeshift corrals and then being shipped off to holding facilities where few are ever adopted.

The animals have no cameras mounted on them to show the mayhem they endure. The dreadful Onaqui wild horse helicopter roundup in Utah concluded in July with 435 beautiful horses taken off the range, many of them exquisite examples of Spanish colonial mustang heritage. The Bureau of Land Management returned 123 mares to the wild after treating them with the pregnancy-control drug PZP. The animals left to roam are a disordered social group; the mature bands have been broken asunder, even though they effectively inhibited reproduction by younger stallions and mares. Additionally, their ecological adaptations are being set back — adaptations that have taken generations to establish.

All this is occurring because — contrary to the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 — the BLM, a branch of the U.S. Department of Interior, has largely abrogated its responsibility to the wild horses and their legal habitats. The same goes for the U.S. Forest Service, the other agency charged with upholding this Wild Horse Act’s noble and ecologically-restorative provisions.

SOURCE: AMERICAN WILD HORSE CAMPAIGN: The scenes of mustang helicopter roundups shown in this video may disturb some viewers.

The roundups are based on ranchers’ attitude toward these highly-evolved and beneficent animals and do not reflect the naturalist approach to life that is at the heart of the federal wild horse protection law. The roundups harm the horses and burros both physically and psychologically. The scars of the unnecessary trauma they cause remain with the “gathered” horses and burros for the rest of their lives, frequently as an equine form of PTSD.

Craig C. Downer

Although the BLM and Forest Service invariably claim their targeted wild horses and burros are “overpopulated,” they are almost always underpopulated; their numbers are greatly dwarfed by livestock and big game animals. The horses’ and burros’ negative impacts are grossly exaggerated while their considerable positive impacts are callously ignored.

America’s last wild-living mustangs and burros are being targeted in order to secure a virtual monopoly on public lands’ natural resources by cattle and sheep ranchers; the hunting establishment; agribusiness; developers who pump down water tables; and mining and energy companies, whose excesses are protected by the grossly antiquated 1872 Mining Law, and that squander and poison vast quantities of precious water throughout the largely-arid West.

Other tunnel-vision interests also jump on the negative bandwagon against the wild horses, including people who just seem to enjoy being disrespectful and disharmonious when it comes to Nature and the other species. That insults these magnificent and highly-evolved horses and burros, animals which have been humanity’s faithful work companions and transportation means for not just centuries, but for millennia, and to whom humanity owes an enormous debt of gratitude.

Exploiting the range

In fact, livestock interests exploit about 300 million acres of public lands in the U.S. by grazing the equivalent of a few million year-round cattle and several million sheep. Those domestic animals consume forage, water and other resources while trampling riparian and upland habitats. BLM and US Forest Service personnel largely cater to those commercial interests even though they lose millions of dollars of taxpayer money every year in the process and millions more in terms of ecosystem harm and destruction.

In contrast, the wild horses and burros account for only an estimated 70,000 to 95,000 animals (the high estimate by the BLM). It’s also important to note that a burro only consumes about half the forage as a horse or a cow. But government officials, public lands ranchers, and misled conservationists have “drunk the poison Kool- Ade” of lies against the wild horses and burros and trumpet the “damage” caused to public lands by the modest population of wild horses and burros as being dangerously high. The proponents of the roundups count on people’s ignorance and the public’s lack of questioning, concern and perspective about what is really going on.

The relative grazing, water and other resource needs of the wild equines amounts to two percent of the resource needs of the domestic livestock and big game animals on our public lands. To blame wild horses and burros for the ongoing destruction of ecosystems is both egregious and mendacious –  deceptive in the extreme.

The wild horses and burros removed from the public lands in such vast numbers are taken to BLM and USFS holding corrals where the stallions usually are castrated. Mares often are treated with birth-control drugs, which harm the individuals and the social groups they belong to if the animals are returned to the wild.

‘Wiping out’ wild herds

The so-called “Path Forward” plan adopted by BLM and USFS is, in my professional opinion as a wild-horse ecologist, a “wipeout” plan, in that it “wipes out” generations of natural adaptation to the particular ecosystems from which these equines came. Natural selection is being replaced by humans’  “artificial selection” of which animals remain free and which do not, and which ones reproduce and which are prevented from reproducing.

The plan is contrary to the true intent of the Wild Horse and Burro Act, which is a clear mandate that humans allow the animals to roam free on their legal areas of public lands and have access to the resources available as the principal presences. Those areas originally were about 12% of BLM- and Forest Service-managed lands, but have been reduced by many millions of acres since the passage of the Act 50 years ago.

After roundup, the conditions in which the mustangs and burros are held are extremely utilitarian. The equines are over concentrated and, although regularly fed and watered, they live in fear. Many fall into a deep depression and some die. They are buried in large pits near the holding corrals or sent to  rendering works contracted to dispose of their decomposing bodies.

Those who are not adopted are reportedly sent to long-term pastures where they supposedly live out their lives in habitats with adequate forage, water, shelter and space to move about. However, it’s been documented that hundreds or even thousands of protected mustangs are being sent off to slaughter in a grievous and gruesome betrayal of America’s national heritage species.

Although the animals are protected by federal law, there’s a loophole: Once a wild horse or burro adopter gains title, usually after one year, the adopter may sell the horse or burro at open auctions,  where the vast majority of animals purchased go to kill buyers. Even the BLM’s “incentive program” that gives people $1,000 to adopt a horse or burro, sometimes results in the animals eventually being sold to  kill buyers, according to a New York Times article.

PHOTO/AMERICAN WILD HORSE CAMPAIGN: Mustangs flee a helicopter during a roundup in this undated photo by the American Wild Horse Campaign.

Leading horses to slaughter

The current SAFE bill in Congress has passed out of the House of Representatives but still has to clear the U.S. Senate. The measure aims to stop the transport of wild horses and burros, as well as other equids, to slaughter plants in Mexico, Canada and other countries. Similar bills have died in the past.

On their legal lands, where the wild horses and burros are supposed to be given the principal resources, they are almost always allocated only a minor portion of available forage relative to what is allocated to livestock. On average the wild horses and burros get only between 10% and 15% and in some cases much less. Their legal habitats, called Herd Management Areas or Territories, are usually over-fenced and cross-fenced so as to overly restrict the natural movement patterns of the herds. This is very much contrary to the true and core intent of the Wild Horse Act, which mandates their “free-roaming” lifestyles and allows the animals to practice their instinctual, natural rest rotation.

The mustangs and burros need sufficient access to pure water in order to survive, and the BLM and the Forest Service should make sure they have that access. Yet, those agencies often fail to fend for adequate water for the herds. Instead, they allow the ranchers, miners, energy developers to monopolize the water of the legal management areas. That has become particularly apparent to me during the many photographic monitoring flights I have conducted, often with the help of the LightHawk organization, over the Herd Management Areas in several Western states.

My photographs and other documentation indicate the extreme degree to which public waters end up going to private interests. For example, in eastern Nevada, that has occurred to the extreme detriment of the wild horses both in the Ely and the Elko Districts of the BLM. The same story is repeated  throughout the West. This situation represents a shameless betrayal of the wild horses and burros.

Often, as just occurred in the Onaqui Wild Horse HMA, major water sources will be turned off by ranchers once their livestock have been removed from their grazing allotments within the management areas. That situation was remedied only after public pressure was applied and the tap was turned on again. Such mean-spirited tactics are common throughout the West, but usually the wild-horse-advocating public is unaware of them and the wild horses and burros suffer greatly and often perish in dire straits as a consequence.\

PHOTO/CRAIG C. DOWNER: Wild horses in the Onaqui Wild Horse Herd Management Area in Utah’s Simpson Mountains.

Need for public involvement

Such incidents will continue unless the American public rises up and insists federal law is obeyed. We need pro-wild-horse-and-burro people in positions of authority over these equids and their habitats —  people who do not gloat at making a mockery of the law meant to protect them.

Such a reform may require additional legislation to place the wild horses and burros and their habitats under a separate agency staffed by well-educated people who appreciate the naturally living equids, rather than by those who have traditionally opposed wild horses and burros in the wild.

I urge those who care about these noble animals to help protect, preserve and restore America’s precious wild, naturally-living horses and burros, together with their complete and viable natural homes. Become an active defender of one or more wild horse/burro herds and their management areas by going to and learning about that agency’s wild horse and burro program and do likewise at the U.S. Forest Service site at

Craig C. Downer of Minden is a wildlife ecologist and president of the Wild Horse and Burro Fund and the Andean Tapir Fund. He is the author of “The Wild Horse Conspiracy” and many scientific articles about wild horses and their environments. He worked with Wild Horse Annie (Velma Bronn Johnston) in the 1970s when the Wild Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act was first being implemented. His websites are and Links to the details of Downer’s “Reserve Design” proposal, a plan to restore the wild equine population to long-term viable levels, in viable habitats and in sustaining herds, may be found online.

Join the Conversation


  1. The person that wrote this article has probably never been out there to see the wild horses. My son works for the BLM the horses are dying with no food or water.

  2. Thanks so much for publishing my article defending the rights to land and freedom of the wild horses, or mustangs, and wild burros! These national heritage species are also returned North American natives with deep roots here. The wonderful law that was passed 50 years ago must be restored as to its true and core intent, meaning these very ecologically beneficial and inspiring equid presences themselves at viable population levels in corresponding adequate viable habitats.

  3. Kerry, the person that wrote this article knows more about these wild horses than your son could ever hope to know. I would suggest your son contact Craig Downer, and learn what’s really going on here.

  4. Reno News and Review by printing these articles and guest opinions is helping to defend and preserve the environment that brought us to Nevada. RN and R is speaking for the voiceless who can not speak for themselves. Bravo

  5. Only lived and worked his entire life around them. You must not of read the full article, nor have perspective other than through hearsay. If no food nor water in the small acres of a particular herd area, documentation many times have shown those resources were consumed by overgrazing private livestock, or blocked so the horses could not use them. Or, drained by other extractors such as mining or fracking. A blm manager testified in fed court if in herd areas are managed for horses as the law states than other grazers would not be in competition for resources. Each wild and domestic specie have different food preferences, mining etc held not to drain ground water nor have passageway that disrupt migration of wild species through herd areas, forcing them to find other means if they can. Tell your son to take a non blm holistic look, and step away from the bias. If he saw a horse in such condition ask why and dig deeper. Not to loudly he may loose his position. .. food or water is diminished when there’s domestic or over concentration of livestock. This is happening far to often lately by the new generation of other interests on fed lands. This has negative effects not only on the horses but on all, even small family ranchers that know habitat ecology. Sadly on the few acres we’re are horses range they are being used as scapegoats.

  6. I have known Mr Downer for more then 25 years, he has been doing field studies on these horses when your son was in diapers. He traveled to all the HMAs and had the privilege to work with the late Velma Johnston, aka “Wild Horse Annie”, whose tireless work for the wild horses is well known.
    Your son is working for the BLM, so that says enough. The BLM discredited itself with the woeful, costly mismanagement of the Wild horse program. Not only they are in violation of the 1971 Free Roaming Wild Horse and Burro protection law, however they are committing fraud by requesting millions for an alleged overpopulation of the Mustangs that in reality does not exist! It’s been decades that the BLM conducted an honest third party aerial count of the wild horse population, instead they are making up fictitious numbers in their statistics. An investigation into this government fraud is long overdue!

  7. Wonderful thoughtful article, it is good to hear the truth as so many Americans across the US know it to be. The author highlighted very important points. I have read many of his and others academic articles and there is much more one can learn about the benefit of our special native evolved equine. Just thinking about how equine were in the millions for millions of years being shaped by our North American landscape to the kind gentle companion animal to us and other species is awesome and is treasured by us. So why are they propagandised??? And their natural way of survival destroyed for a few companies? Especially when we the people have said …no

  8. Thanks Marly for giving the greater truth about the wild horses and their habitats on the public lands and what’s happening to them. To merely lash out in an intemperate way only creates irrationality and the lack of greater perception, value system and priorities in life.

  9. Thanks Anne-Marie for being the voice of fairness and compassion as well as for the true intent of the WFHBA. This must be restored now at the 50th anniversary of the law. It’s a noble law that represents a giant leap forward for humankind and can help save the living planet, because the horses and burros in their natural state, when not subject to a vicious squeeze play, are healers and restorers of the life community, as well as preventers of catastrophic wildfires! The are also great Carbon sequesters.

  10. You’re spot on, Marlaine. Yes why does this perversion of a well-founded and progressive law occur? This is the backwardness of too many today, that is killing the precious life of our planet. And the WFHBA in its true implementation would go a long ways to turning this dreadful happening around. Thanks again for being a voice of greater truth and for greater justice on Earth for the horses and burros and their natural habitats that have been designated by law.

  11. Concerning the earlier mention of the wild horses not having Go-Pro video cameras mounted on them to show what is happening to them in the way of cruelty and suffering, etc., there can and should be Go-Pro audio-video cameras mounted on the helicopters that are chasing these highly evolved, strong and sensitive animals.

  12. A friend who lived close by a HMA took regular pictures of them. The high grasses were lush, and there was a water source. Then, the water source blocked, and the horses scratched and got enough. Then the horses were rounded up,taken out, and cattle brought in a mo th later, and then a water trough. No more wild horses in the HMA.

  13. This is what is in store for our Wild Horses and Burros: ‘According to the contract paperwork, Nevada By-Products was chosen over landfill disposal due to cost effectiveness and the fact that “Due to the sensitive nature of the public to the wild horse and burro program, it is necessary to dispose of these large animals as quickly and discretely (sic) as possible and Reno Rendering fulfills these requirements.”
    It should also be noted that in the contract specifications, the NV BLM estimated approximately 200 adults and 100 foals would need to be sent for rendering each year. Animals’ Angels latest Freedom of Information Act request only increased our concerns over the BLM’s treatment of wild horses and burros. Among other things, the BLM’s Palomino Valley Facility in Nevada seems to be drastically under-reporting the actual number of horses and burros that have died under its “care.” ‘
    Other concerns are the death rate of stallions after gelding, some suggest could be as high as 10%. We know several horses die after each roundup, many of which are foals barely a few weeks old. There has also been deaths of colts being gelded on site, not in a vets office where medical care exists, who are under 6 months old. Witness have seen this abuse take place as well. Lies from the BLM are common. Their claims about starving horses in such bad shape they have to be shot never ring true especially from an agency with a long well documented history of fraud and abuse. As you can see from the photo below it’s only after the horses are taken into BLM custody that they starve and wither away from neglect.…/the-wild…

  14. Not true. Even in the videos you can see the horses are healthy and not emaciated as people claim. Go ride out there on a horse and you can see for yourself. I hope all who are involved in these mass roundups burn in hell

  15. I’ve lived in Nevada my entire life and have travelled the state extensively for over 60 years. I have never seen the rangeland so degraded and the horse numbers statewide at the unsustainable levels that exist now. I spent hours walking rangeland TODAY in the snow and wind and I can tell you I saw unsustainable numbers of horses where public land domestic livestock grazing doesn’t even exist! Every available bunchgrass plant is grazed to the roots. I saw carcasses and bones of dead wild horses. I saw water sources that are beat down to dirt and withering. Readers, please inform yourselves of the facts. If you are encouraged not to accept BLM statistics because you feel BLM employees have some hidden agenda to eradicate horses from the public lands you should look at other evidence. If you can’t find any evidence except that which you distrust then maybe you should travel Nevada and see what you find rather than trusting the opinion of a writer in the Reno News and Review. Mr. Downer is more than qualified to form an opinion. I do not doubt his sincerity. He is entitled to his strong opinion. He may not feel that contraception works but other horse advocacy groups promote the use of contraceptives. He may feel he knows more than educated range managers as to the feeding habits of herbivores on the range. Just remember, there are dissenting opinions among the wild horse advocates as well as those members of the public whose wildlife utilizes the public and private land resources. Please don’t let your emotions overrule what is best for the horses themselves.

  16. Thanks for bring this terrible fact to light of public attention, Barbara. We both can and will change this deplorable situation. Happy New Year 2022. In the Light of a Better Tomorrow!

  17. While I appreciate your comment, Bill, I think it is you who must learn to look at the bigger overall picture about what is happening on our public lands. The big vested interests like to glorify their lifestyles and ways of exploiting the natural ecosystem and since they have not learned the great value of having wild horses and burros as part of the harmonious equation, they have targeted them for discrediting and elimination or near elimination. Then they concoct many partial filtered views that ignore so much that is wonderfully good and healing about the naturally living horses and burros returning to their age-old ecological niches in the West and elsewhere. In the Light of a Better Tomorrow, I wish you a bright new year 2022!

  18. Bill:

    The wild horse advocacy, largely driven by donation-funded non-profit activists who make a healthy living off the plight of America wild horses, has over the past 30-years (using over $100-million in total donations) failed to tender any genuine practical solution (plan) that would help the BLM in it’s mission to allegedly uphold the 1971 Act to protect wild horses and burros.

    We find hundreds of advocates lamenting and commiserating over the current mismanagement spectacle, yet, offering no solution that is both economically and ecologically appropriate.

    Here is an agnostic article that shares fact-supported truth in regard to; WHY we are we stricken with this ongoing Range War; and,

    A cost-effective solution that ends the Range War, and still allows wild horses to live pursuant to the true ‘intention’ of the 1971 Act to protect them:

    HERE —>>

    Regards Everyone!

    William E. Simpson II

    William E. Simpson II is a naturalist living among and studying free-roaming native species American wild horses. William is the award-winning producer of the micro-documentary film ‘Wild Horses’. He is the author of a new Study about the behavioral ecology of wild horses, two published books and more than 150 published articles on subjects related to wild horses, wildlife, wildfire, and public land (forest) management. He has appeared on NBC NEWS, ABC NEWS, theDoveTV and has been a guest on numerous talk radio shows including the Lars Larson Show, the Bill Meyer Show, and on NPR Jefferson Public Radio.

    Check out William’s Film Freeway account for films, studies, TV & radio interviews, and more HERE:

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