Wild Horses galloping through the pasture on the Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary.

America’s Wild Horse Population Is Booming. At What Ecological Cost?

Words by Liana DeMasi

photographs by casey steffens

A symbol of the American West, a once-prosperous, now drought-stricken landscape, wild horses are dismantling the very place they represent.

When I call Jess Oldham, he’s just returned from a bison hunt, one of the many activities he refers to as “yeehawing.” There’s a slight twang in his voice; a “yes, ma’am,” which follows some of my earnest clarifications about America’s relationship to wild horses. After all, Jess has been helping to run the Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary and his family’s cattle ranch in Wyoming since 2016, along with his father, veterinarian Dr. Dwayne Oldham, his mother Denise, and his siblings Jared and Odessa. The sanctuary is the only one of its kind in the U.S. that sits on Native land.

 

The Oldhams seem to epitomize the American West—or at least an outsider’s understanding of it. Jess calls some of the local ranchers “ag-boys and -girls” (ag being short for agriculture). They’re up early, work late, rearing and raising animals and hunting bison. As we’re chatting, Jess coughs periodically, and I imagine it’s from all the dust kicking up in the corrals, which are probably empty this early in the morning. Instead, I picture all of their horses running in the crisp early air. These horses, an iconic symbol of the West, are broad-bodied, yet sleek, with unruly manes and an unencumbered brilliance. That evening, I assume, the Wyoming sun will set just as majestically as it rose.

 

But what do I, a New York native, know of this “Great American West?” In so many words, Jess tells me, not much.

Jess Oldham is greeted by a wild horse.
Ranch Hand Austin spreading hay on the Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary.
Odessa Oldham at the Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary, which she helped set up.

And he’s right. These assumptions of the West and its horses are as ubiquitous as they are unreliable. The reality is far less romantic as the American West enters its now third decade of what scientists are calling a “megadrought.” Such a classification means that water rationing has been recommended in some areas and enforced in others to compensate for natural springs, rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water drying up or reaching dangerously low levels. This is also where wild horses tie into the equation. Since the 1970s, the wild horse population has been left largely mismanaged and at the center of widespread debate, which has in turn allowed their numbers to surge far beyond what is considered balanced in the American West’s ecosystem. As a result, native wildlife and plants are forced to compete with the invasive and highly adaptable wild horse population, further exacerbating the region’s drought conditions.

 

In other words: once a symbol of the Great American West, a drought-stricken, once-prosperous landscape, wild horses are dismantling the very place they represent.

Jess Oldham on horse back.
A wild horse on the Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary.
Wild horses at dawn, gathering for a morning feeding.

Breaking Down The Environmental Cost

It would be more accurate to call wild horses feral, since they are the descendants of domesticated horses. They were brought over by Spanish colonizers, and in the years and decades following, especially during times of economic upheaval, were set free by owners who were unable to care for them. Up until 1971, these horses were rounded up and killed, often in inhumane ways, to such an extent that their numbers were dwindling.

 

Wild horse advocates cited these efforts as barbaric and called for their termination. They were victorious with the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971, which demands the management of wild horses by corralling them into Herd Management Areas controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM is then required by law to mitigate their populations so that they don’t exceed Appropriate Management Level (AML)—approximately 30,000—through the use of fertility treatments and “humane destruction” of excess populations. But these practices are difficult, expensive, and often unreliable, so much so that current wild horse and burro numbers are at 90,000. Horses can also be corralled and kept on public lands or in facilities in order to be trained or adopted, but the number of animals who are not adopted far exceeds those who are. The cost of care for the contained horses costs taxpayers about $100 million a year.

“There’s 90,000 wild horses and burros out on the range, with another 50,000 in captivity. Not all of them can represent the nostalgia and beauty of the West.”

Jess Oldham
Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary

With few effective methods of controlling these animals, the sheer magnitude of their numbers, and their non-native presence, has wreaked havoc on the environment.

 

Horses are most commonly found in desert environments where food and water are already limited—and non-native horses make that supply dwindle even further. “Horses need five to 10 gallons of water a day at a medium range, just to survive,” Jess tells me. “If you’ve got 250 horses, they’re going to drink water faster than a spring can produce it. They’re going to go for it faster, too. It’s detrimental to everything else out there.” Jess goes on to tell me that horses have a top and bottom set of teeth, unlike cattle and other typical livestock, which means that they pull grass and plants out by the root, often making it so that it takes two seasons for that foliage to regenerate.

Wild horses on the Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary.
Jess Oldham riding alongside wild horses.

That’s not to say that cattle and other livestock don’t also have environmental costs. The difference is that the rules and regulations surrounding their upkeep and lives also help mitigate their impacts. According to a study by BioScience, “unmanaged free-roaming-horse use can cause changes in plant community structure, composition, and diversity, which can affect both ecological processes and the quality and availability of wildlife habitat.” So, if wild horse populations were managed in the same way that cattle and sheep are, then the BLM and its subsidiaries, such as the Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary, would be able to manage the land that horses rely upon, allowing for regrowth after a grazing schedule similar to that of the “ag boys and girls.” And, as many unchecked and invasive species, wild horses are incredibly resilient, which means that even in their hunt for more resources, they are at an advantage over other species that are roaming, wanting.

 

“They’re so amazing and adaptable,” Jess says. “In fact, how great they are is [also] why they’re a problem. People think they’re wild horse advocates, but they don’t understand the issue at all.” It’s also worth mentioning that an overgrazing and fast-rising population of wild horses is not only hindering native species, but their own survival as well. Dealing with this dilemma, however, is far from straightforward.

Cows on the Double D Ranch, which is owned and operated by the Oldhams.

The Long Road Ahead

Wild horse advocates and groups, such as the American Wild Horse Campaign, want to “keep horses wild.” These advocates cite the traumatizing methods and conditions that wild horses undergo during the roundup processes. For example: many groups are currently advocating for the ban of helicopter roundups, a practice which corralls wild horses using low-flying helicopters and trucks in order to effectively migrate these populations into confinement. Wild horses tend to travel in small groups, and these practices can break up those families, forcing many of them into adoption or sanctuaries separate from their original herd. Their efforts are often aimed at focusing on more robust and effective fertility treatments, keeping wild horses and burros on the range or off Herd Management Areas. The hope is to keep them alive and controlled in the least invasive way possible.

 

Emotions are at play here, too. We might—and should—be saddened by wild animals that are hunted, killed, or come into harm’s way, but rarely are they so connected to us. Five million horses are domesticated around the United States, where they graze, are raced and ridden on, and otherwise cared for. We have grown to love them through the intimate relationships that have formed between horses and humans, which are like few others. So, when their feral, wild counterparts are roaming free, many people would like to see them stay that way. After all, they could as easily be just another horse in the barn.

Dwayne Oldham leaning up against the horse trailer alongside the road.
Horses of the Wind River Wild horse Sanctuary.
Cows of the Double D Ranch.

Those emotions extend beyond the individual horses to include an idea of the very land they inhabit. My previous musings about Jess’s life in Wyoming among all the horses on the Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary are not singular. Many wild horse advocates have similar viewpoints of the American West, and while some of them are accurate in their expressions of near-mystical beauty, most others describe a place many Americans will only venture to in the Hollywoodized version. In films like El Dorado and True Grit, horses move across the screen, driving the plot by carrying young handsome men to their latest endeavor. These stories—and the desire to write new ones—are in large part what have controlled the myriad of narratives surrounding wild horses. The reality is often quite different. “There’s 90,000 wild horses and burros out on the range, with another 50,000 in captivity,” Jess says. “Not all of them can represent the nostalgia and beauty of the West.”

 

Jess is right. Many struggle to see the fast-growing population of wild horses as a problem at all, due to our longstanding admiration and deep relationships with them. And that’s understandable. Yet $100 million a year on management isn’t exactly loose change—and many of the solutions, such as fertility treatments, aren’t feasible or cost effective on a large scale.

Jess Oldham working with cattle at Double D Ranch.
Odessa, Denise, and Jess Oldham working with cattle at Double D Ranch.

It seems that our concerns over the management of wild horses and our care to conserve the parched landscapes of the American West stand in direct conflict. We smile on long drives when we pass horses grazing in a pasture, and we stir in anguish when news of yet another drought makes headlines. We struggle to meet ourselves—and each other—in any sort of middle ground: certain that to safeguard the horses, we must plunder the environment; convinced that the act of aiding a drought-ridden landscape would mean decimating the wild horse population. The road ahead is challenging, with no quick fix in sight for an ever-mounting problem, but one thing seems clear—that this polarization is synonymous with the current state of America.

 

“Too often people are fighting to be heard and fighting to be right rather than for truth and progress,” Jess says. Perhaps it’s in the compromise where we’ll find a solution.

Jess Oldham at dawn on Double D Ranch, accompanied by Sassy and Bo.
Jess oldham at dawn, getting ready for the day.

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