Mustangs: Myth & Manipulation in the American West


By Linda Bunch & Becky Lisle

Since its passage in 1971, the Wild Horse & Burro Act and the animals it protects have become a powder-keg in the West, generating a great deal of passion from various sides of what has become a volatile and highly polarized issue. 

Unfortunately, but probably not surprising, misrepresentations and distortions of truth have become standard throughout the entire debacle because of mustang advocacy groups’ perception and very vocal, wel¬l-orchestrated, and well-financed campaign to the effect that great cruelties and injustices are suffered by the mustangs at the hands of the BLM and public land users. As area rancher and neighbor of the Mustang Monument, Hank Vogler was heard to quip when quoting Wyatt Earp:  “If the truth gets in the way of legend, print the legend!”

Some of the misinformation, circulated widely and without discretion as truth, is so outlandish that long-time wild horse advocate and activist Willis Lamm was compelled to write an article with the intention of distinguishing true advocates from fringe groups.   He noted that the wild horse advocacy movement has lost much credibility in recent years because of what he referred to as the Hysteria Corps, laptop experts, and self promoters. 

Of the Hysteria Corps, Lamm stated: (they) “are addicted to sensationalism.  They are invested in bizarre, fantastic stories such as truckloads of horses disappearing in the night, BLM running horses off cliffs and a host of other ludicrous concoctions. “  Lamm explained about the laptop experts that  “anyone with basic internet savvy can start a web page or a blog and portray himself or herself as a journalist and/or expert in any subject,” and of the self-promoters,    “there are a few individuals who see the cause as a means to increase their own esteem, to sell something and/or to collect money.  Oftentimes the self promoters will present themselves as experts, in some instances offering credentials that they don’t actually have.” 

The ever-present theme is that greed of the natural resource industry is the underlying reason for mustang removal, and the rallying cry of mustang advocacy groups is “let them run free.”  Some groups go as far as to suggest that all captive mustangs be returned to the range, regardless of the ecological disaster it would create.

In Australia, pressure from activist groups and the resulting “let them run free” policy has resulted in a monumental crisis with both feral horses and feral camels.   The Australian feral horse population is estimated to be as many as 400,000, and the feral camel population is well over 1,000,000.  Both species are classified as pests in Australia because of not only their devastating environmental impact, but also the destruction to private property and safety risks they pose to people.   Thousands of feral horses and camels must be regularly, systematically gunned down by shooters hired by the Australian government. 

Like Don Quixote fighting windmills, the misdirected efforts of the Hysteria Corps undermine what real progress could be made in viable, holistic solutions that include mustangs as part of the rangeland ecosystem.  The radical mustang advocacy camp’s most common general fallacies are listed below, followed by rebuttals.

  • Mustangs are native to North America:  Ted Williams of Audubon Magazine wrote:  “The argument that equids are “native” to this continent because their progenitors were present during the Pleistocene -a mantra from the wild-horse lobby-makes as much sense as claiming that elephants are native because woolly mammoths were here during the same period. Roughly 10,000 years after the extinction of North American horses, Spanish explorers introduced a larger domesticated species. But the continent’s plant communities, having coevolved with ungulates that had cloven hooves and lacked upper teeth, were ill-equipped to handle solid hooves and meshing incisors. Result: ecological havoc.  Another mantra from the wild-horse lobby is that the “mustangs” extant in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming are closely related to animals unleashed by the conquistadores. They are not; they are mongrels-a genetic morass of breeds issuing mostly from recently escaped or discarded livestock.”
  • Mustangs were once prolific in the American West:  Another myth perpetuated by wild horse advocates is that wild horses dominated the landscape of the inland West much like the buffalo herds of the Great Plains. In Peter Skene Ogden’s Snake Country Journals which are a daily diary of his explorations of the northern Great Basin from 1827-1829, no mention is made of herds of wild horses although he frequently refers to the lack of game and the necessity to kill their own horses and mules for food.  The theft of their horses by the Indians was a constant problem and the source of most of the trapper-Native American hostility. Logic dictates that if the indigenous inhabitants of the area had access to beautiful, shiny wild and free mustangs, they wouldn’t brave the powder and ball of the fur trappers in order to acquire one of their weakened, grass-deprived mounts which in Ogden’s words were “of questionable quality”. 
  • Mustangs are going extinct:  The BLM states:  “the current on-the-range population of wild horses and burros (approximately 38,500) is greater than the number found roaming in (the year the Wild Horse & Burro Act was enacted) 1971 (about 25,300).  The BLM is seeking to achieve the appropriate management level of 26,600 wild horses and burros on Western public rangelands, or nearly 12,000 fewer than the current West-wide population.”
  • Mustangs are being removed from the range to make room for cattle:    The BLM states:  The removal of wild horses and burros from public rangelands is carried out to ensure rangeland health, in accordance with land-use plans that are developed in an open, public process.  These land-use plans are the means by which the BLM carries out its core mission, which is to manage the land for multiple uses while protecting the land’s resources. Authorized livestock grazing on BLM-managed land has declined by nearly 50 percent since the 1940s; actual (as distinguished from authorized) livestock grazing on public rangelands has declined by 30 percent since 1971.
  • The BLM utilizes cruel gathering and handling practices:   The BLM states:  Two reports issued in the fall of 2010 – one by four independent, credentialed equine professionals and one by the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General – found, without any ideological or political bias, that the BLM’s gathers of wild horses are conducted in a humane manner.  The Inspector General determined that the BLM’s gathers are “justified” and reported that the agency “is doing its best to perform a very difficult job.”   Member of the Wild Horse & Burro Advisory Committee, Dr. Boyd Spratling, stated that the mortality rate directly from gathering and transport is 1{e7e4ba4d9a3c939171d79cae1e3a0df1d41e5a91c3c4158fbb92284b490bc9d3}. Despite such data and the expert opinions solicited in the effort to ensure unbiased, objective results, the Hysteria Corps has accused the BLM of an elaborate “whitewash” scheme. 
  • Mustangs are sent to slaughter:  While the Wild Horse & Burro Act states:  “The Secretary shall cause additional excess wild free-roaming horses and burros for which an adoption demand by qualified individuals does not exist to be destroyed in the most humane and cost efficient manner possible,” it has become the policy of the BLM to simply ignore this, and instead house mustangs for decades at taxpayer expense.  Bob Abbey was quoted as saying that the options of slaughter or even euthanasia of excess mustangs are “off the table.”  Thus, the BLM has actually been found by the Government Accountability Office to be in “non-compliance” with law.

Enter Madeleine Pickens, whose highly- publicized eco-sanctuary in Elko County, NV, is touted by Pickens herself as being a “forever home” for mustangs, and also able to save the taxpayer money.   In early June 2011, Pickens turned out 500 horses on her property and stated on her website, “Yesterday, we were blessed with the arrival of the first truckload of the Paiute mares and foals.  These are the lucky mustangs that were rescued days from slaughter last December.”   

According to a representative of the sale yard where the horses were purchased, the horses actually came from multiple private (read: not BLM) sellers over a period of time.  The horses were taken to a feedlot as the herd was gradually accumulated from September to December 2010.

It needs to be strongly emphasized that the wild Paiute horses that she acquired are not “mustangs,” as they were not owned by the BLM, and thus, by the American taxpayer. Pickens’ acquisition of these horses is not saving the taxpayers a dime-the horses were privately owned by the Paiute tribe and were being disposed of in a manner entirely consistent with sound management practices of private property. She, or rather her “agents”, simply placed the highest bids.

If Pickens wants to run a rescue for privately owned horses on her private property, which is totally within her rights, her ranch should be promoted as such.  Calling wild Paiute horses “mustangs” is intentionally misleading, but is par for the course considering the liberties Pickens has taken with her Native American persona.  The National Tribal Horse Coalition actually publicly protested Pickens’ use of the Native American image and cultural heritage, specifically for her 2011 Rose Bowl Parade appearance.  

Their statement reads as follows:  “The NTHC is opposed to animal rights groups like the Madeleine Pickens Wild Mustang Foundation who have freely used the symbolism of the North American Indians and horses to promote agendas in direct opposition to the tribes’ position, this float is a perfect example of the romanticism affiliated with the North American Indians and their horses, therefore, the NTHC calls on the leadership of the Rose Bowl Parade and any and all other decision makers to prevent this float from being in the parade as it is an abuse of the reputation of the North American Indian.”

Pickens does intend to acquire actual mustangs and return them to nature, and while this fans the flames of romanticism, the truth is that forcing horses to revert to foraging after having been hand-fed in captivity for years does not do the horses any favors-especially when differences in climate are taken into consideration.  The often harsh winter conditions of Pickens’ property are a stark contrast to the mild winters of the BLM holding facility in Palomino Valley north of Reno.

Pickens of course plans to supplement with hay when necessary but still claims to be able to somehow save the taxpayer money.  However, a BLM statement says:  “The Foundation has indicated that it will be prepared to provide holding services on land in Nevada by next fall and that it would result in a “significant cost savings.” Without a written, detailed proposal, the BLM cannot determine whether this is true. However, Mrs. Pickens in her prospectus has suggested a stipend of $500 (adjusted to inflation) per horse, per year, for the life of each animal. This would exceed the BLM’s existing cost per animal in long-term holding of $475 per year. Her prospectus, as presented, does not demonstrate an obvious cost savings to the American taxpayer.” 

When she claims to be able to save the taxpayer money, Pickens often refers to the annual cost of horses in short-term holding facilities, which is significantly higher than the cost of long-term holding.  Plainly , this is like comparing apples and oranges, since her “forever home” for the horses would fall into the category of long-term holding.  Her website states:  “The Foundation provides the government with: (1) abundant long term capacity for horses at about the same cost, $500 per year per horse, as its current long term holding facilities, (2) significant savings considering the cost of short-term holding is about $2000 per year per horse, (3) an alternative to attempting to locate more long term holding capacity on private lands through standard contracting procedures and (4) reduced shipping cost of relocating horses from western states to central states.”

Pickens works hard to remain in a gray area with plans for her ranch.  She was quoted as saying in recent presentations that “it’s too expensive”  to adopt horses, and apparently, that’s where she draws the line where her own expenditures are concerned, even though the out-right purchase of horses from a sale yard is acceptable.    It would seem that her reasoning is that if she does not assume actual ownership of any BLM horses, she will not have to follow the rules that other BLM permit holders do regarding grazing seasons and removal of stock during certain parts of the year.  If the BLM still owns the horses, (and let’s not forget, paying Pickens to run them on BLM ground) they would not fall into the category of privately owned livestock, and therefore not be subject to the same regulations.

A BLM statement also says:   “Mrs. Pickens’ plan proposes to take the animals from private pastures and facilities and instead graze them on private and public lands on a large ranch in Nevada. However, current Federal law prohibits the BLM from using allotments associated with that ranch for grazing wild horses. The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act restricts animals to the areas where they were found roaming when the Act was passed in 1971. Unfortunately, none of the BLM grazing allotments that Mrs. Pickens proposes for her sanctuary were areas where wild horses roamed in 1971.”

It’s reasonably certain that these points are not being included in Pickens’ recent presentations to various community groups and elementary school children.  Hers is a tactic very successfully utilized by another mustang advocate forty years ago-Velma B. Johnston, aka “Wildhorse Annie”, who also targeted school children in an emotion-laced campaign with the help of Weekly Reader magazine-a publication for elementary school children-which extolled its readers to write to Congress. The result was a barrage of tear-stained letters being delivered to the offices of Congressional delegations. Their pleas to “save the horses” and “don’t let horses become extinct” did not fall of deaf ears-the result was the passage of the Wild Free-roaming Horse and Burro Act in 1971.   

Mrs. Pickens’ plan, while grandiose and surrounded by much fanfare, still has a long way to go before reaching the point of being remotely feasible, which is perhaps why she felt compelled to purchase horses that are not mustangs, lest she appear to be losing ground.

The BLM states the following in regards to Pickens’ intentions:

  • To implement the Foundation’s concept as presented, under existing law and regulations, the BLM would be required to transfer title of wild horses through sale or adoption to Mrs. Pickens and change the class of livestock authorized on several Nevada allotments from cattle to horses.  This would require a land-use plan amendment and additional site-specific environmental analysis (under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA). All such environmental documents require a period for public review and comment before being finalized.
  • Existing law would need to be changed. The BLM does not have the legal authority to reimburse a private party for grazing titled horses (i.e., formerly government-owned horses now privately held) on either public or deeded land; reimburse a private party to graze untitled (that is, still government-owned) wild horses on public lands; or manage wild horses on public lands outside Herd Areas that were legislatively created in 1971.
  • To ensure the American taxpayer receives fair value, the Saving America’s Mustangs Foundation would need to submit a formal proposal in response to a BLM solicitation that would be open to the public for private-partner preserves. The BLM is developing such a solicitation.
  • The BLM is concerned that in some of the areas proposed for the Nevada sanctuary, forage and water exist to support a maximum of 970 wild horses, far below the 10,000 the Foundation has indicated it would like to support. 

In spite of such information,  her website states:  “The stocking level of horses will be phased in over time, starting with about 10,000 animals and increasing about 4,000 animals per year until the appropriate stocking rate is reached.  This phase-in of stocking is necessary for additional forage production projects to come on line.  The maximum number of horses the ranch can support is near 30,000. “ 

Rumor has it that in addition to the 500 mares and foals “rescued” thus far, Pickens has also purchased or adopted a number of stallions.  Pickens’ website states that “From 2001 to 2008, the BLM removed more than 79,000 wild horses and burros from their rangelands while placing only 47,000 into private care through adoption.”   When the very essence of her eco-sanctuary plan is to help manage the excess mustangs, why, then, would Pickens be purchasing breeding stock to produce still more unadoptable animals?

One of the pressing questions regarding the Pickens property and intentions for it is: “how will she keep ‘her’ horses (mustangs and otherwise) separate from mustangs already present in the area?”  Her website states: “The Ranch boundary is securely fenced.  Fenced railroad & highway right-of-ways are major portions of the boundary.  The fenced boundary in the high country would not be pressured by large numbers of horses.  The high country boundary fences may be damaged as a result of winter snow and ice, but would be inspected and repaired prior to the horses returning to the high country each season.  Agreements would be honored to ensure a good neighbor policy.  Cattleguards would be installed on all roads that access through the ranch boundary.” 

All of this sounds well and good, unless you happen to be familiar with fences and the challenges of keeping mile after mile maintained enough to keep livestock contained, especially in a scenario like that of Pickens’ property and the surrounding area.  There are already mustangs all around Pickens’ property, including stallions that will be directly across the fence from Pickens’ Paiute mares.  Not much can stand in the way of the call of nature, not even a barbed wire fence.  Then there is the issue of gates which are frequently left open intentionally or “accidentally” by other users of the public lands. But perhaps keeping her horses contained isn’t really Pickens’ intention at all, and her ranch is just the gateway to the Hysteria Corps dream come true:  letting the mustangs run free.

(Thank you to Demar Dahl, Elko county rancher and Elko County Commissioner, Sue Wallis, Wyoming rancher, legislator, and United Horsemen vice-president, and many others who have offered input and encouragement to move forward.)


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