Are Sanctuaries an Acceptable Solution for “Excess” Wild Horses?


In response to an article by H. Alan Day titled Mustang sanctuary: How a rancher saved 1500 wild horses, I offer the question and reply; are sanctuaries a sustainable solution for the longstanding dilemma faced by American wild horses? I think not; at best they are a band-aid. Here’s why.

Families are separated

Under this so-called ‘proven methodology’ (as cited in the article), wild horses and burros are rounded up and families are split up. This alone is reason enough to say no for people who understand wild horses. The situation requires another option for dealing with excess wild horses where families are kept together, and there is such a plan, called Wild Horse Fire Brigade.

The excess wild horse problem is an obtuse man-created problem, caused by the unnatural practice of forcing and managing wild horses into areas long-ago depleted of any natural predators for the purposes of commercial livestock production. Wild horses are robbed of the critically important function of ‘natural selection,’ which selects against poor genetics and controls population.

Two members of the wild horse herd near the Simpson ranch in the mountains of the Oregon-California border. © Laura Simpson.

Captivity is inhumane

Confining wild equines is a draconian idea proffered by some as a ‘humane treatment’ of highly intelligent sentient beings. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) camps come to mind as a human analogy to this so-called solution. Wild Horses and burros are, after being brutally rounded-up, separated from their families and suffer stress. Stallions are castrated, while mares may be treated with contraceptives PZP or GonaCon, which interrupt normal social behaviors in family bands, among even more concerning side-effects, according to Dr. Cassandra Nuñez.

One perspective on the so-called sanctuaries being hastily created is that the captured wild horses who fill these large confinement areas are like the walking dead. I say walking dead because once removed from the wild and modified by humans using drugs and other methods to minimize breeding and interrupt evolved behavioral ecology and social structure, such horses are no longer wild horses. They are destined to walk around in confinement until they die; a sad testimony to the current lack of vision by a handful of people.

An article by Michael Harris (Wildlife Law Program Director at Friends of the Animals) cites the same perspective: “What is ignored by the pro-PZP community is that wild horses darted with PZP to inhibit their ability to naturally reproduce aren’t really, well, ‘wild’ anymore. Wild means ‘living in a state of nature’ as opposed to being ‘tamed or domesticated’ to be more useful to humans. Accordingly, opposition to PZP is based on an ethical belief that wild animals should be free of human manipulation.”

Ecosystems suffer when horses are removed

Wild horses are critical evolutionary symbionts on the landscape, and their presence as grazing large-bodied herbivores greatly benefits the re-seeding of native species plants. They also reduce excessive wildfire ground-fuel by grazing and trampling dry plant matter, as demonstrated at Wild Horse Ranch during the deadly Klamathon Wildfire. The below video is a nine-minute lesson in the Natural History of native American wild horses.

Fuel, Fire, and Wild Horses from Micah Robin on Vimeo.

Sanctuaries are not a cost-effective solution

Sanctuaries cost the public one way or another. Subsidized sanctuaries (off-range holding) are merely another means to monetize the ongoing plight of American wild horses and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wild horse mismanagement problem at the expense of taxpayers. When the BLM is paying land owners (a for-profit model) to warehouse native wild horses, this is nothing new and has been done for decades. Non-profit rescues and sanctuaries are already hard pressed to survive the daily struggle for donations to pay bills related to their warehousing of wild horses and burros.

Re-wilding family bands intact (stallion with harem) into suitable remote wilderness areas makes both ecological and economic sense. These genuine wilderness areas will never be used for livestock production due to costly transport and management logistics issues stemming from remote location and rugged terrain. These areas are also unsuitable for livestock as they contain fully functional ecosystems, including robust apex predator populations.

Majestic, one of the wild stallions of Wildhorse Ranch. © Laura Simpson.

Re-wilding American wild horses and burros into appropriate wilderness areas is, unlike any sanctuary model, a cash-positive program. Wild horses take care of themselves as they have for millennia on the landscape (and still do in a few places today) and also provide very valuable wildfire grazing services in critical areas, thereby protecting forests, wildlife, habitat, and watersheds.

Maybe as importantly, the grazing of vegetation and resulting scientifically proven reduction of wildfires keeps carbon compounds sequestered in soils. Without this service, these compounds would be released into the atmosphere as hundreds of millions of tons of annual greenhouse gases produced during the catastrophic wildfires that occur on landscapes with depleted large-bodied herbivore populations. More on this can be read here.

I say: Lets “Make America Wild Again” (#MAWA) via re-wilding native wild horses using Wild Horse Fire Brigade.

I spoke about this plan and a new natural history documentary out of Colorado College in an April 23rd interview with Perry Atkinson on theDoveTV. Watch that interview below.

Even though such confinements (‘sanctuaries’) currently offer a solution better than death in a slaughterhouse or via euthanasia, sanctuaries are far from ever being close to an ideal solution. We can do much better than management using a return to confinement model. And we owe it to our own honor and integrity to deal with American wild horses in a manner befitting of their long-storied service to mankind. Let’s show a little initiative for a change.

Featured image: Black and his lead mare Lucy, at Wildhorse Ranch. © Laura Simpson.

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About Author

Capt. William E. Simpson II is the author of Dark Stallions – Legend of the Centaurians, proceeds from which go towards supporting wild and domestic horse rescue and sanctuary. (Facebook pageClick to see author's profile.

1 Comment

  1. I agree with you in theory, that allowing wild horses to remain wild is far more ethical and ecologically sound than keeping them in sanctuaries or sterilize them. But in fairness to sanctuaries, organizations that care for (formerly) wild horses in captivity, or adopt them out to private caretakers, mostly are not doing so because they want horses gone from nature, but because it’s the only alternative available to them under the current status quo besides the government rounding them up for death by neglect or export to Mexican slaughterhouses. Lobbying for different government policies regarding horses is a much needed approach, which several organizations are currently taking, but in the mean time I don’t think it’s fair to bash sanctuaries for doing all they can in the here
    and now to spare the horses a worse fate. I also wonder, what large areas of wilderness do you know of in the United States that aren’t used for livestock and currently contain healthy carnivore populations? Even the national parks are micromanaged by the government, with wildlife herded and culled, and many if not most federal lands are open to grazing. That can be changed, of course, in the long term, but it will take a completely different administration sympathetic to wildlife and not indebted to the animal agriculture industry.

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