Wild Horses Are Removed From US Government Land as Drought Shrinks Food Supply

A dozen wild horses sprinted at full gallop through the sage here earlier this month, tailed by a low-flying helicopter herding them toward a corral.

The Bureau of Land Management held the roundup as part of a controversial plan to remove 16,797 wild horses from Western public lands in 2022, which would represent the most ever in one year and a 43% jump from 2021.

Bureau officials say wild horses, as well as burros, need to be removed from Nevada and other Western states because there are too many of them for the amount of grass and plants they feed on, supplies of which are shrinking due to drought.

The horses, also called mustangs, compete for the limited food supplies and water with deer, elk, and other animals, including cattle raised by ranchers. All are at increased risk in coming years, as climate change makes resources more scarce in the American West, officials and researchers say.

In the 1.2-million-acre “Pancake Complex,” where this roundup took place, agency officials estimate there were 3,244 wild horses—up to nine times as many as what they think the land can safely support. Ben Noyes, a wild horse and burro specialist at Land Management who supervised the roundup here, said he recently found four of the animals dead at a dried-up spring.

“Everyone wants to think it’s roses out here for the horses, but it’s a tough country,” Mr. Noyes, wearing a dusty cowboy hat, said as helicopters buzzed in the distance.

Advocates for horse welfare, though, call the roundups dangerous and cruel, and say too many mustangs end up in slaughterhouses. They say a better approach is to reduce the number of cattle that federal land managers allow to graze in the area.

“Basically, the horses are getting the short end of the stick,”  Marie Milliman, an observer with the advocacy group Wild Horse Education, said as she watched the roundup.

Land-management bureau officials say the numbers of livestock allowed to graze on public lands have also been in sharp decline, but challenges facing the horses remain.

After wild horses are corralled by the bureau, the majority are adopted by individuals and groups, and some are released back into the wild following sterilization treatments.

Mr. Noyes said none are knowingly sent to slaughterhouses, but some people who adopt them might subsequently sell the animals to be killed. Animal-rights supporters say that happens typically in other countries where the meat is sometimes consumed by humans.

Despite efforts to place horses with owners, about 22,000 from past roundups are being held by the agency in corrals while it determines what to do with them, officials say.

Wildlife across the West is suffering from a drought that began about 20 years ago. At California’s Point Reyes National Seashore, park rangers last year installed water troughs to aid herds of tule elk, whose numbers have thinned. Oregon’s mule deer population has fallen about 40% since 2000, in part due to a lack of water, state officials say.

After declining for decades, the number of wild horses in the West has grown to 72,000 as of 2021 from 34,000 in 2010, according to estimates by the land-management bureau. The agency considers about 27,000 to be the appropriate population.

Animal-rights groups including Wild Horse Education sued the Bureau of Land Management in federal court in Reno on Jan. 21, seeking to block one of the first big roundups at the Pancake Complex. The agency pressed the court to allow it to continue the roundup, because federal law prohibits the use of helicopters—the main tool for herding the wild animals—during spring foaling season, between March and June.

A federal judge on Feb. 4 refused to block the roundup of 2,060 horses, and one day earlier this month Mr. Noyes and a crew set out before dawn on a nearly 100-mile drive from their base in Ely, Nev., to continue a removal operation that had been under way for nearly a month.

As sunlight began to filter onto the stark landscape, a helicopter took off to go look for wild horses. Shortly after 9 a.m., a herd of mustangs that looked like black dots against the beige horizon ran toward a corral. A wrangler stood by with a domestic “Judas horse,” trained to lead the mustangs into the corral.

Over several hours, 79 mustangs were captured by a contractor. Toward the end, one horse could be seen limping outside the corral. Diagnosed with defective tendons in its front legs, the animal was euthanized.

Troy Cattoor, owner of the contracting company Cattoor Livestock Roundup, said injuries are sometimes the unfortunate result of corralling operations. But “we try every day to make sure none get hurt,” he said. “We all love horses.”