‘Keeping wild horses in captivity is like keeping the fire department in jail during fire season,’ says expert

One of the few wild mustang herds that have been rewilded to graze fire-prone Northern California. Photo by Michelle Gough

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is sterilizing hundreds of wild horses in Colorado’s Piceance Basin. The area has become the second-largest oil and gas basin in the US.

This summer’s ‘herd management’ comes after advocates and legislators pleaded with the BLM to stop helicopter roundups of nearly 800 wild horses in the Sand Wash Basin last year.

Citing “exceptional drought” in 2022, the Bureau removed more than 20,000 wild horses from public lands across the US in an effort to “preserve the natural landscape.” Critics of the Sand Wash Basin removal were outraged when 2 months after the roundups, the BLM leased the public land to private ranchers who used it as grazing pasture for their livestock.

Stallion and Mare. Image by Michelle Gough

This year, the BLM says they hope to remove about 100 more wild mustangs from public lands in northwest Colorado. KGNU’s Alexis Kenyon spoke with William E. Simpson, a wild horse ethologist, CEO of the Wild Horse Brigade, and one of the few wild horse researchers in the country who says efforts to sterilize the animals are interfering with the lifecycle of one of North America’s oldest native species at a time when we need them the most. 

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    ‘Keeping wild horses in captivity is like keeping the fire department in jail during fire season,’ says expert Alexis Kenyon

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Interview Transcription:

William E. Simpson: When animals are randomly shot with sterilization chemicals like GonaCon and PZP, it interferes with the natural selection process and the lifecycle of the species.  Also, these chemicals are not like the contraception developed over decades for humans. The EPA lists them as pesticides. The BLM is using them off-label.

Alexis Kenyon: Oh, wow. Does the sterilization make the horses sick? 

Image by Michelle Gough
Mare and Foal. Image by Michelle Gough
Band of wild horses. Image by Michelle Gough

Simpson: Well, it does. And if you happen to treat her with a sterilization chemical like PZP or GonaCon interferes with natural selection, which preserves the vigor of the species and has been critical for the survival of these animals. I mean, it’s very critical.

So, do wild horses have that much time left? The answer is no. They do not, you know, wild horses, if we keep doing what we’re doing right now, in 20 years, there won’t be wild horses. They’ll be gone. There’ll be a few scattered groups here and there and zoos and a couple of sanctuaries here and there. We won’t have the beautiful, elegance of wild horses gracing the natural landscape. That will be gone.

So, do wild horses have that much time left? The answer is no. They do not, you know, wild horses, if we keep doing what we’re doing right now, in 20 years, there won’t be wild horses. They’ll be gone. 

Kenyon: Okay, let’s talk about horses and fire management. You have a quote that I read from a story you did, “keeping horses out of the wilderness and in confinement is like putting the fire department in jail during fire season.”

Simpson: It is. 

Kenyon: Tell me about that. What do you mean?

Simpson: Well, it comes right back down to William J. Ripple from Oregon State did a study. It was on five continents. And I think there were like 30 universities involved. It’s called “The Collapse of the World’s Largest Herbivores,” and he’s got a whole section in there on fire. And what it says on every continent where they looked at the collapse of the herbivory…you know, in Australia, they killed 4 million kangaroos—that was their natural large body herbivore there. On every continent, they looked at, where you have a collapse of the large body herbivore, catastrophic fire evolved. Every time. 

 On every continent, they looked at, where you have a collapse of the large body herbivore, catastrophic fire evolved. Every time. 

So this isn’t like some sort of mystery. I mean, this is well-known science. It’s well published, settled science. When you get rid of your native species herbivory,—the deer, the elk, the kangaroos—depending on where you are, all that grass is growing that was feeding them, it just sits there. Fire will eat it. And if you lose your herbivores, it will be fuel for the fire instead of for the herbivores, for them to live. 

And, you know, we’re talking three and a half million tons of grass and brush, it sits there now, waiting for the first lightning strike or some crazy human behavior. The point is: sources of ignition, we can’t control.  

What we can control is the fuel load. And we do that by getting these horses out of confinement, putting them into these private wilderness and public wilderness areas and you release them there. And what do they do? They do what they’ve done for 4 million years: they reduce the fuel. They make it safer for the trees. When you have a fire then it burns low and slow and that’s the natural fire that indigenous talk about that we need.

Image by Michelle Gough

Kenyon: Yeah, I mean, in Colorado, it’s been raining all summer, which is very unusual. But what’s the most concerning is, you know… When the Marshall Fire happened here a couple of years ago, one of the biggest factors that we heard about was there was a lot of fuel on the ground, because we had had a really wet spring. And I feel like with this summer being even rainier than that year, I think people are scared. They’re worried.

Simpson: They should be. Yeah, having a lot of rain is great for the aquifer. But then what happens is you get a lot of fuel. And because mankind has been very good at wiping out our large-body herbivores in North America, you know, we went from tens of millions of bison when Columbus showed up, and then we ended up killing them down to where we had less than 500. Then you know, people need to get a pencil and start doing math. 

I mean, we’re spending about *$150 million a year in taxpayer money to feed horses in captivity.

I mean, we’re spending about *$150 million a year in taxpayer money to feed horses in captivity, wild horses that have been rounded up by the BLM and Forest. They’re held off range, and it’s kind of like a FEMA camp. And we’re feeding them grass hay. You know, the solution is… it’s really a no-brainer. And maybe that’s why people are missing it. It’s right in front of their nose and they can’t see it.

Wild horse family band. Image by Michelle Gough

Nature’s perfect. We have to stop fighting nature and start looking at how nature does things because then we win. Nature wins and then we win too because we’ve forgotten we’re part of nature. We’re part of this planet, we’re not above it. We’re not exempt from what’s happening on this planet. And we always think we can do it better than nature. That’s not true. We’ve shown time and time again, that we bungle it. Every time we try to do something we screw it up royally because we’re affected by ego and money.

* correction: Simpson says the wild horse management program cost taxpayers $250 million. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the program cost $156.6 million in 2022.

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    ‘Keeping wild horses in captivity is like keeping the fire department in jail during fire season,’ says expert Alexis Kenyon

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