Cross-posted at Scientopia. A polished version of this post was published in Contexts.  You can download it here.

Mustangs are powerful symbols of the American West. The modern mustang is the descendant of various breeds of horses taken by everyone from Spanish conquistadors to pioneers in wagon trains into the Western U.S., where some inevitably escaped over time and formed herds of feral horses (wild herds in the eastern part of the U.S. were generally either driven west or recaptured over time as the frontier moved ever westward, the wild ponies of Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia being a famous exception). Over time, they became inextricably entwined with perceptions of the West as still wild and free, not yet fully domesticated. The image of a herd of beautiful horses against a gorgeous but austere Western landscape is a striking one, perhaps something like this (via):

So how do we get from that to this next image of mustangs running…after a feed truck in Oklahoma?


(Via).

It’s a complicated story involving conflicts surrounding federal land management, public attitudes toward mustangs, and unintended consequences of public policies.

Wild horses fall under the purview of the federal Bureau of Land Management, since most live on public range (particularly in Nevada, California, and Idaho, as well as Washington, Wyoming, and other Western states). Mustangs have no natural predators in the West; mountain lions, bears, wolves, and so on certainly kill some horses each year, but their numbers simply aren’t large enough to be a systematic form of population control for wild horse herds, especially given that horses aren’t necessarily their first choice for a meal. So wild horse herds can grow fairly rapidly, despite die-offs due to disease, droughts, and so on. Currently the BLM estimates there are about 33,000 wild horses and 5,500 wild burros on BLM land in the West.

Of course, managing wild horses is one small part of the BLM’s mission. The agency is tasked with balancing various uses of federal lands, including everything from resource extraction (such as mining and logging), recreational uses for the public, grazing range for cattle ranchers, wildlife habitat conservation, preservation of archeological and historical sites, providing water for irrigation as well as residential use, and many, many more. And many of these uses conflict to some degree. Setting priorities among various potential uses of BLM land has, over time, become a very contentious process, as different groups battle, often through the courts, to have their preferred use of BLM land prioritized over others.

I’m not going to go into a history of these conflicts or arguments for or against different uses of public lands. The important point here is that managing wild horse numbers is part, but only a small part, of the BLM’s job. They decide on the carrying capacity of rangeland — that is, how many wild horses it can sustainably handle — by taking into account competing uses, like how many cattle will be allowed on the same land, its use as wildlife habitat, possible logging or mining activities, and so on. And much of the time, the BLM concludes that given their balance of intended uses, there are too many horses.

So what does the BLM do when they’ve decided there are too many horses? For many years, the BLM had simply allowed them to be killed; private citizens had a more or less free pass to kill them. There wasn’t a lot of oversight regarding how many could be killed or the treatment of the horses during the process. Starting in the late 1950s, the BLM began to get negative press, and a movement to protect wild horses emerged. It culminated in the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed in 1971. The law didn’t ban killing wild horses, but it provided some protection for them and required the BLM to ensure humane treatment, guarantee the presence of wild horses on public lands, and encourage other methods of disposing of excess horses.

One such method is making such horses (and burros) available to the general public for adoption. The BLM holds periodic adoption events. However, currently the demand for these animals isn’t nearly large enough to absorb the supply. For instance, in 2010, 9,715 wild horses were removed from public lands, while 2,742 were adopted.

So the BLM is removing more horses than the public adopts individually. Killing them has become increasingly unpopular. Controlling herd populations through some form of birth control hasn’t been widely implemented and has led to lawsuits.

This is how thousands of wild horses ended up on private land in Oklahoma and other states. The BLM began paying private citizens to care for mustangs removed from public lands. Here’s a news segment about one of these operations near where I grew up:

The ranch in that video is owned by the Drummond family…a name that might ring a bell if you’re familiar with the incredibly popular website The Pioneer Woman, by Ree Drummond. They are just one of several ranching families in the area that have received contracts to care for wild horses.

But this brings a whole new set of controversies, as well as unintended consequences for the region. Federal payments for the wild horse and burro maintenance program are public information. A quick look at the federal contracts database shows that in just the first three financial quarters of 2009, the Drummonds (a large, multi-generational ranching family) received over $1.6 million. Overall, 57% of the BLM budget for managing wild horses goes to paying for holding animals that have been removed from public lands, either in short-term situations before adoptions or in long-term contracts like the ones in Oklahoma. There are increasing complaints about the amount of federal money being spent to care for horses on private land.

At the local level, these contracts have impacted surrounding communities in often unanticipated ways. This is an enormous source of income, one that hasn’t been subject to the same risks as raising cattle. The price is guaranteed in advance. While there are certainly start-up costs involved, this area of Oklahoma is used for cattle ranching and so pastures are already fenced, corrals exist (though perhaps not to the specifications of the BLM), and the contracting families generally continue to run cattle while setting some acreage aside for the wild horses.

But this income-generating opportunity isn’t available to everyone; generally only the very largest landowners get a chance. From the BLM’s perspective, it’s much easier and more efficient to contract with one operation to take 2,000 horses than to contract with 20 separate people to take 100 each. So almost all small and mid-size operations are shut out of the contracts. This has led to an inflow of federal money to operations that were already quite prosperous by local standards. These landowners then have a significant advantage when it comes to trying to buy or lease pastures that become available in the area; other ranchers have almost no chance of competing with the price they can pay. The result is more concentration of land ownership as small and medium-sized ranchers, or those hoping to start up a ranch from scratch, are priced out of the market.

The future of this program isn’t certain. It is coming under increasing criticism because of the costs. There are ongoing criticisms of the process of rounding up horses to have them shipped to Oklahoma and other states. Billionaire Madeleine Pickens wants her Nevada ranch to become a mustang sanctuary, but it could hold only a tiny proportion of animals removed from BLM land. And so the conflicts about how to manage the wild horse population in the Western states, and what to do with those that are removed, continue, with no resolution in sight.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
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