Livestock industry’s campaign to get rid of wild horses is a scam to cheat the taxpayers

Photo by Erik Molvar/WWP

There’s an organized campaign underway to get wild horses off America’s western public lands, and the livestock industry is both its primary salesman and beneficiary. It’s all about the money and expanding the livestock industry’s stranglehold on western public lands.

The livestock industry has cooked up a cock-and-bull story about how wild horses are the primary threat to land health in the West. The now-disgraced BLM interim director William Perry Pendley made that false assertion into official federal policy, but this self-serving fairy tale by the livestock lobby does not deserve to be taken seriously.

Wild horses are found primarily on Herd Management Areas (HMAs) spanning 26.9 million acres (11 percent) of the 245.7 million acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management, but are completely absent from the vast majority of western federal lands. Wild horses are often held at very low populations though aggressive federal roundups. Cattle and sheep, on the other hand, graze on the majority of western public lands, and hugely outnumber wild horses. Domestic livestock are officially authorized to cause major ecological destruction, grazing at densities known to be destructive to native vegetation and that encourage invasion by cheatgrass, the flammable weed that is fueling the unnaturally large and frequent wildfires in the West. Range management science states that limiting livestock forage removal in semi-arid areas to a maximum of 25 percent of the yearly grass production is appropriate, but the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service regularly  authorize livestock use of  50 percent – or even more – of the grass each year, destroying rangeland health. That doesn’t even count the numerous cases of livestock trespass that happen every year – ranchers taking advantage by putting cattle on too early, leaving them out too late, or sneaking more cattle or sheep onto public lands than they are legally allowed.

Wild horse removals are just one more handout in a long line of taxpayer subsidies to the livestock industry. Ranchers pay only $1.35 a month to graze a cow-calf pair or five sheep on public lands. This is called the “Animal Unit Month,” or AUM, and wild horses also are weighted at one AUM apiece. Renting private lands in Mountain West states for the same livestock costs an average of $23.40 a month in the 16 western states, so the below-market federal rates amount to a massive taxpayer subsidy. Removing wild horses from public lands doesn’t help land health when it simply leads to more cheap grazing for the ranchers who rent federal allotments; instead, impacts stay the same (or even get worse) while cattlemen get more cheap grazing. The Bureau of Land Management openly admits this is happening. In its 2020 analysis proposing to zero out three wild horse Herd Management Areas in Wyoming’s Red Desert (and radically reduce horses in a fourth), the Bureau states that after horses are removed, “AUMs previously allocated to wild horse use may be allocated to wildlife, livestock or other ecosystem functions.”

After wild horses are removed from public lands, the males are castrated (called “gelding”), and they are warehoused in short-term holding facilities. The government then attempts to auction them for adoption by horse buyers, but many of them don’t get bids. Thousands are sent off to long-term holding pastures, which federal agencies rent from private operators (at taxpayer expense) for the princely sum of $60 an Animal Unit Month on average. It’s a very, very expensive program.

To sum up, federal agencies spend millions of taxpayer dollars on helicopter roundups to remove wild horses from lands where the grazing is valued at only $1.35 a month per animal, spends millions more on short-term holding and transportation, then houses them on private lands where the taxpayers get to pay an average of $60 a month per horse for the rest of their lives. The ranchers out west can then expand their public land herds at rock-bottom prices, while ranchers in the Midwest get paid premium prices to have the formerly wild horses graze their pastures. The livestock industry is taking advantage of the taxpayers for huge subsidies, coming and going, and is laughing all the way to the bank.

But the really sick part of all of this isn’t the obscene cost to the taxpayers or the livestock industry raking in financial windfalls. It’s the fact that the federal government is removing the horses that are ecologically well-adapted to dry conditions of the arid West and replacing them with cattle that are suited only to moist climates and are far more damaging to arid public lands. And to top it all off, they’re pasturing formerly wild horses on private lands in areas with abundant rainfall, pushing cattle off the very lands to which they’re ecologically suited. So in the end, the public gets more cattle on public lands, more ecological damage to public lands, wild horses shifted to private lands, less-sustainable beef production, and then gets to foot the bill for this whole package of expensive mismanagement to boot.

We have a land health crisis, and a cheatgrass pandemic, on our western public lands. It’s not because of wild horses, it’s because our federal agencies are enabling ecological degradation by failing to competently manage the livestock grazing on public lands. This problem isn’t getting solved by shuffling large herbivores around the continent. It’s long past time to manage wild horse numbers sustainably on the range instead (restoring natural predators and temporary birth control show promise), and to refocus federal attention and funding on the real problem – excessive domestic livestock and the cheatgrass invasions they cause – so we can restore healthy public lands, abundant wildlife, and clean-flowing streams and rivers throughout the West.


Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and serves as Executive Director for Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting and restoring wildlife and watersheds on western public lands.






  1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    Good article. The gist of it is as you said – wild horses are adapted to the arid West & cattle are NOT! So all this agency is doing is removing wild horses from the land that they can easily survive on & making the taxpayers pay big bucks to support them – all the while giving away our public lands at $1.35/month. The whole AUM measurement is another thing – Most wild horses are fairly small – 500 to 750 lbs. A cow & calf likely weigh 1500+? Yet their share of forage is treated as equal. It sure does seem like there should be a lightbulb going off when so many wild horse advocates give Congress this information year after year & yet because of the livestock lobby & its influence, our NATIVE wild horses are in the same boat they were 100 years ago – far too many going to slaughter or living out their lives in some pasture without their families.
    I watched you testify in at least one hearing regarding the grazing program – listened to the yammering of men who had no concept OR were making big bucks because of the way this is run. It was depressing for me & I’m sure it was for you. But we all have to keep trying.

    1. JNDauterive Avatar

      Good points, but I wouldn’t say most wild horses are fairly small. That’s simply not true.

      1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
        Maggie Frazier

        14 hands is a small horse – their weight is far below what an adult cow & calf weigh. Sure there likely are some 15-16 hand wild horses but doesnt seem to be the majority.

        1. Lila Bett Avatar

          My mustang is 16.1 hands and there are lots and lots of big horses out there….mixed with draft blood. Most of them are NOT small at all.

  2. Ted Chu Avatar
    Ted Chu

    I would like to see elimination or at least a reduction in livestock impacts on public land. Net reductions in primarily cattle and horse use is the way to achieve that. If feral horses are removed or reduced and there is no increase in managed livestock use that is a plus for the land. Additionally once horses are reduced to appropriate management levels ranchers can no longer scapegoat them for the damage their livestock inflict. To the best of my knowledge the times WWP has gone to court to stop horse gathers the net result has been the same number of cows and more horses on the land, a net negative.

  3. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    “Additionally once horses are reduced to appropriate management levels ranchers can no longer scapegoat them for the damage their livestock inflict.”

    I don’t think that statement reflects the reality of the situation/ The same thinking has been applied to wolves and coyotes, and yet attitudes towards them have not changed.

    There really is no ‘magic’ appropriate number except perhaps ‘zero’ in these peoples’ minds – like Utah.

    I’m tired of the wishful thinking.

  4. Marlene Oakland Avatar
    Marlene Oakland

    Thank you for this article. Many people do not realize that here in the United States we have many Native wildlife. One such native is the horse. The same horse we are so use to as a domestic is the same wild specie that ruled our continent for millions of years. It is not clear whether the horses discovered in NA when the Spanish came over were just reintroduced or were actual native equine. The evidence has been leaning toward the fact they never completely left by way of the land bridge. Wild Horses have very old and sophisticated social evolutionary traits. We are finding that different herds in the US have unique traits and genetics. Some of the genetics are older or never have yet to be found in any known domestic. Another trait of horses is they evolved with the ability to self regulate. Meaning they keep their population size to resource availability. They reproduce more after stressful situations such as roundups or challenged by nature and less when unmanaged.
    The story of our wonderful wild horses is kept as an argument for the livestock industry instead of a specie we Americans can brag about and share. Research is minimal and also dictated by the “other” interests which is usually only about how to roundup, house, sterilize or come up with other reasons to excise them from the lands. In perspective, Maine has more moose than the whole US has in wild horses. We have nearly a million elk and millions of deer, but the few thousands of horses is to much for the cattle. They want the land we gave them in the preservation law of 1971, that is the only goal. The appropriate herds levels are to low and always being lowered. (an eg: S.WY 2 million acre HMA had horses of 8 thousand in the 1980’s. Than the livestock cattle and sheep and oil producers had them lowered to 3000, than they got it lowered to 300. The same area will allot up to one million sheep and 10 thousand cattle. So. Thankyou for a rare article For protecting the Law to preserve our wild horses.

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      All researched & proven but like many other truths – this one is constantly denigrated by the “allotment lobby”. If an accurate count of actual numbers of wild horses was done – which it hasnt been by the BLM or any other governmental entity – the true comparison between livestock & wild horses could be told. Because of course no one pays attention to the quantity of cattle turned out! The roundups (Confusion-done & Caliente to start soon) are devastating one herd after another – watched video of day 6 & 7 of the Confusion one – roping ADULT individual horses – seems now there is no reason for these operators to adhere to humane standards.

    2. Theresa Semona Avatar
      Theresa Semona

      Marlene you saud it all perfectly. Wild horse advocacy groups have been saying these truths for decades now. BLM should not be managing wild horses and burros. Their mismanagement is beyond words. For the mighty dollar they are destroying our ecosystems with cattle and sheep abd decimating our wild horse herds. Who are kind to the environment and help in fire prevention by grazing underbrush cows won’t even eat. Everyone please write your Senators, Reps and Congressmen to clean up BLMs faulty wild horse and burro management and get cattle off our public lands!

    3. Anita Avatar

      I would like to add to your several interesting points that many of our collegiate equine programs do not think our wild horse populations are “wild.” Rather, students are being taught that such horses are “feral”.This article’s detailed figures of $1.35 per month for a cow/calf combo on public lands vs. $23.40 per cow on private land is so illumimating.And the $60. a month rental for a horse in a holding pen is jaw-dropping.

  5. Beeline Avatar

    I think that the reality of the situation is that very few people in America consider ecology or indigenous species for that matter to be very important.

    Horses are no more indigenous species than feral pigs or starlings but they caught the public imagination when Velma Johnson and various movie personalities pushed for protective laws. So on the one hand people recognized that animals such as horses and burros, animals that they were familiar with via myth and story, deserved humane treatment but on the other the populace remained oblivious to the ecological damage they caused coupled with cattle and sheep grazing which jeopardized the continued existence of our native wildlife.

    Still in the America of today, people accept the colonial attitude reinforced by allowing continued immigration of other people and other species of animals. The man that imported and released starlings at a Shakespearean festival in New York just had to have some birds from the old country to make the festival more realistic, not even considering how many native birds would be displaced and how much damage starlings would cause economically. I read an article about two years ago in psychology today in which the author decried the killing of escaped pythons and boa constrictors in the everglades even though they were eliminating indigenous species big time. America is the great melting pot that is melting down.

    So I have to wonder about the acceptance of this hypocrisy. Are not our indigenous species as beautiful or important as horses and burros? Apparently not. Beautiful and majestic creatures such as swans, bison or mountain sheep can be hunted and killed but not so horses.

    Horses helped in the Spanish colonization of the Americas and got re-established but do they really deserve to be treated as a special species set aside from our indigenous animals and re-manufactured as a species of wildlife?

    1. Mary Young Avatar
      Mary Young

      Your first sentence is correct, your second sentence and the rest of your argument, well, hope you are well paid for your espousing ignorance of what indigenous means. Horses are the Oldest living indigenous mammal in North America…. Bison nor elk are not, they are considered naturalized. They are Siberian indigenous that migrated here over the land bridge. Elk only just 14,000 years ago.

    2. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      Well – possibly if the whole “thousands of wild horses are eating all the forage” was true, yeah that might be the case. The only counts of the actual numbers of wild horses are from the BLM. Do you really think – now consider their absolute fealty to the livestock producers – that that would be accurate? Wild horses get along with other wildlife – predators (if not killed) would also keep the numbers down. Unfortunately, it appears that these LEASORS of grazing allotments do not want the horses eating their grass – do not want predators taking their livestock – so who gets the bad press? You DO realize that almost every Herd Management Area is also used as grazing allotments. I believe there are maybe one or two (Pryors, maybe) that actually does not have cattle grazing there. Far too many HMAs have been zeroed out already – why? Think about it.

    3. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      Yes they are, our indigenous species are exceptional. It really bothers me that people do not see that, at least IMO.

      But, there’s debate about where horses and burros originated.

      Also, much of human progress has been on the back of these animals, both literally and figuratively. Is it right to just kill and dispose of them just because now they are inconvenient. Humans are not a very loyal or grateful species.

      I can’t understand why we cannot treat other creatures with humaneness and respect.

      Also, if animals were not restricted to certain areas, the damage to the environment would not be as great.

      This is my opinion. We cannot just ‘erase’ our ‘mistakes’, especially when the affect the life and death of other sentient beings.

    4. Chris Zinda Avatar
      Chris Zinda

      Beeline rocks. It is hypocrisy built of the very premise of Molvar’s earlier title for this subject, forgetting WWP’s own use of wild horses as a means: The Focus on Wild Horses Distracts From the Massive Damage Caused by the Livestock Industry

      “Horses are no more indigenous species than feral pigs or starlings but they caught the public imagination when Velma Johnson and various movie personalities pushed for protective laws.”

      1. Ida Lupine Avatar
        Ida Lupine

        There are lots (and lots) of animals and plants that are non-indigenous and brought to this country, but who is to say which ones are brutally killed off and which ones are not?

        The jury is still out about whether or not equines are native to the North American continent, or if they migrated here over the millennia.

        So if we’ve had a kind of new evolution due to human meddling and breeding and discarding them so that they are now wild again, who’s to say if they don’t belong back here?

        It’s the livestock industry that is predominately behind getting rid of everything on the landscape in favor of their own interests, and I wish the public would make that connection in their purchases.

        Far be it from me to ever think people would not eat beef (lol), but to cut down might be possible?

      2. Maggie Frazier Avatar
        Maggie Frazier

        How many hundreds of years does an animal have to live here in order not to be called an “invasive pest”? Could be that Mr. Molvar’s has been enlightened as to what has been done to wild horses over the years only because they are in the way! Most of our “indigenous” species have been treated the same way as our indigenous people. Seems the “appropriate management levels” has applied to only species that dont make a profit – pretty sad.

      3. Mary Young Avatar
        Mary Young

        Horses are indigenous. no argument just fact.

      4. NMccormish Avatar

        The demonization of wild horses has indeed distracted attention from well-documented livestock industry impacts since the 1800s, so your criticism of Molvar’s words holds no water.

        Your comparisons are not supported by the fossil record, only conjecture, but if you believe them, where is your outrage at the actual widespread (and increasing) threat in 30+ states now from millions of quickly-reproducing and highly destructive feral hogs? Hogs which, by most accounts, were in fact introduced and released intentionally, are highly mobile, and which carry zoonotic diseases?

        We have at most (!) 100,000 wild horses and burros existing on their legally designated (and ever shrinking) ranges. These ranges constitute about one quarter of all public lands open to grazing by livestock — and our wise managers have created needlessly costly conflict by requiring our wild horses and burros to compete with for-profit livestock in these same few areas.

        Why so much enmity towards so few animals, whilst giving a pass to a very real, and very out of control, national threat? Have pigs somehow managed to capture your imagination such that they are given a pass? Why aren’t we spending the millions per hog that our “managers” are spending per wild horse, and actually addressing a looming national problem?

        Anyone with even a basic comprehension of conservation might be better served by focusing on real and much larger problems. But, follow the money?

    5. JNDauterive Avatar

      Pretty convenient to ignore the fact that the white man is an invader here that has been wiping out Native PEOPLE and species since he arrived, the most invasive species on the planet. In fact, I am fond of noting that the longer the white man has been in an area, the more offed up it is, and the white man has been in Louisiana a long time, degrading a once incredibly bounteous environment so badly we are now washing away as the land subsides.

  6. Steve in Utah Avatar
    Steve in Utah

    While wild horses do need to be managed (and they were always being managed before these roundups, that’s what HMAs were created for), it’s ludicrous to think that -in the current land mismanager’s regime – removing wild horses will do anything to increase rangeland health, or allow native species to thrive. All it will mean is more welfare cows and domestic locust-sheep. People who point to wild horses as impact problems on western public lands are naive fools. You can wake me up when any of the agency-captured land ‘managers’ ever propose reducing cattle and sheep numbers to go along with a horse roundup…much less substitute those AUMs by augmenting or reintroducing beleaguered native species to grazing allotments. It’s not about horse impacts. IT’S ALL ABOUT THE COWS. Cattle and sheep should be first up for removal. Then you can credibly talk about wild horse impacts.

  7. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    These elimination programs, for wild horses, wolves, coyotes, prairie dogs, rattlesnakes, etc. and on and on – have been going on for decades, centuries even – and they all continue to be scapegoated and blamed for all of ranching ills, regardless of any facts, hunting, reduction in their numbers.

    We can’t expect to continue to believe these ‘rationalizations’. I can’t call them lies because I think some people really do believe these things.

    I hope no one takes my comments personally, it is just that it is frustrating to hear the same things over and over again.

  8. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Horses have been important to all of humanity. They had no choice in how they have been ‘used’ by humanity, where they were taken to, or the colonization of other countries. Those are deliberate acts by humans, not horses and burros.

    Horses were embraced by this nation and its indigenous peoples.

  9. Mary Young Avatar
    Mary Young

    One bull story was given at the Summit of wild horse haters. A ranch manager put up his alloted acre map of 400,000 acres and said that the 1500 horses allowed there was too many and somehow got them to reduce them to 250 (Beaty Butte hma). He than showed his cattle numbers of 25,000 having to be reduced to 20k because of these numbers. boohoo. greedy. .. Not to mention these managers are the same for many of the HMA areas who manage for absentee billionaires who could care less about the future health of the land. So many stories, all have the same outcome. More $$ for Others, less habitat for the Native horses.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      It’s just another example of a clash between what the people want and what the ranchers want, and supposedly the public lands are to be shared.

      To me and many others, wild horses are emblematic our our country, as much as any other wildlife, and should be accommodated.

      Ranchers get enough consideration as it is, and their interests are overly represented.

  10. Lyn McCormick Avatar
    Lyn McCormick

    My comment on a subsequent post by GW on Black Tailed Prairie Dogs in The Thunder Basin Prairie is applicable here as well:

    “Any chance the candidates for DOI Secretary under the Biden admin are negotiable for Science / Conservation-minded mgmnt of PL’s ? And, what is the latest data on the % of LS produced on PL vs private land East of the Mississippi ? It seems like a new strategy is in order; one that gives Stakeholders, particularly independent family ranching operations a financial incentive to participate in the Conservation efforts. The LWCF funding should be construed to conserve biodiversity rather than conserve private enterprise. The quickest way to reduce LS on public land is to provide Stakeholders with a financial incentive and meaningful employment to do so. If we continue with the same strategy of hoping another Corporate / industry friendly Admin will change things and / or wait for the trend of LS on PL’s to evolve away biodiversity will evolve away first”.

    Finally, the BLM WH&B budget, last time I did the math is enough to fund cost-effective and humane ON the Range mgmnt of WH&B’s especially if the OFF range contracts are converted to ON the range mgmnt. It should be doable for $1 – $2 per day per head. The stakeholders who are the best candidates for On the Range mgmnt, on a case by case, HMA by HMA basis, should be contracted and funded to do the mgmnt; census, bait-trap gathers, PZP administration until AML is reached. I think the current BLM request for additional $ for the plan is to achieve AML over a 10 yr term. Also, paying ranchers to manage WH&Bs ON their PL allotments in the HMAs at the current OFF range contract rates could potentially derive more revenue than a cow/calf operation. Seems like a good incentive to downsize or transition out of LS if there is some financial security involved.

    1. Mary Young Avatar
      Mary Young

      Great Ideas, I would add to insure the HMA part of the law for the horses “as principal users”. Thus if a reduction is made it should first adhere to this clause by removing livestock or other uses, than reevaluate if the horses need reduced.

      1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
        Maggie Frazier

        I agree – how about the HMAs being off-limits to livestock grazing? The horses and other wildlife would manage just fine. There would be no need for Wildlife Services or any other predator management. If the predators werent wiped out the herds just might actually be able to regulate themselves.
        Now I know – here come the naysayers!!

    2. NMccormish Avatar

      We already pay the BLM and USFS to manage wild horses and burros on our public lands. I don’t see why the public should pay private ranchers even more for the privilege. The opportunities for further boondoggling would be immense, as would the difficulties with monitoring and documenting, as well as chains of responsibility, since most of the HMAs are remote and some nearly inacessible, how would the public interest be better protected? If ranchers are not employees, just lessees, double-dipping from the public trough they should be held to much higher standards and oversight to deter the temptation to easy fraud.

      You also would need to better define “ranchers” since most are just corporate shells with the inevitable result of too-familiar shell games. If this idea has merit it would better serve us all if management contracts were open to all, not just self-interested “ranchers.”

  11. Lyle Simpson Avatar
    Lyle Simpson

    On the BLM social media they are pushing this hard

    Environmental DNA analysis supports conclusion that damage to rare Tiehm’s buckwheat plants was caused by herbivory, link to statement

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      Yup – the answer is use MORE pesticides (that have been proven to be dangerous to insects & plants over long term. Then I guess the ground squirrels – those nasty creatures that are eating “everything” have to be killed – here comes Wildlife “services” again.
      I apologize if this sounds rant-like but, boy , watching these “agencies” manage is scary.

  12. William E. Simpson II Avatar

    For a perspective from someone who has been living among wild horses and studying them for the past 7-years:

    HERE is my NPR RADIO Interview:

    More information here:

    William E. Simpson II – Naturalist / Rancher
    Bona-fides at:

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      And at this time, Europe is RE-WILDING Konig horses & other animals. Putting them BACK where they belong rather than removing them!!

  13. Craig C Downer Avatar
    Craig C Downer

    The herds must be restored along with their habitat at truly long-term viable levels. Reserve Design is the way to go. See my website

  14. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    Craig: If “Reserve Design” means banning domestic livestock from being in designated Wild Horse Areas, then I am all for it. Currently, on many of the quote “Wild Horse Areas, cattle out number Wild Horses by 10 to 1.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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