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Wildhorses and Burros versus government economic interests, Nevada, USA

Should wild horses and burros be removed from federal land because they are are damaging it? Opponents claim the opposite and say that the BLM is motivated by economic profit making.


Since at least 1959 there has been an ongoing conflict in several areas in North America between animal preservation groups and federal organizations such as The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), concerning the occurrence of wild horses and donkeys (burros) in those areas. BLM, who are the ones currently removing wild horses from their living habitats, claim that they are doing the environment and the local ecosystems a great service by capturing the horses and holding them in huge holding pens. The reason for this, according to BLM, is that the horses take a huge toll on the environment -- foremost by grazing, which is part of their natural behaviour. The BLM also claim that these wild horses are NOT a naturally occurring species in America but are an invasive species, which is why the amount of wild horses need to be controlled and in some cases completely removed for the sake of the environment.  Among the animal preservation groups against this policy is The American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC) and Return to Freedom. They question the meaning of "invasive species", by going back many thousands of years. Today's kind of horses in the US arived after 1492. But could instead look to the late Pleistocene, 13,000 years ago (Donlan et al, 2005) [1], when Eurasians arriving in North America began to wipe out most of the large megafauna that had shaped the continent’s ecosystems for more than 2 million years. (Perhaps the disappearance was aided by  temperature fluctuations). Mammoths and mastodons disappeared and also other animals. However, species akin to  today's wild horses were native to the USA and they are not to be seen as an "invasive species". Scientists have proved that the wild mustangs of today is genetically linked (via imports from Europe) to their ancestors that roamed the land. This creates an ongoing conflict where on one side the wild horse is seen as a native species that owns a right to the land and on the other side as an invasive species that needs to be controlled and removed. It is this removal of the wild horse from the land that forms the very base of this conflict. BLM acts in what they mean is the name of ecological and environmental conservation yet their opponents stress the fact that horses provides an ecological service when they get to roam freely. They also stress the fact that when wild horses and donkeys are removed from the land this is for the sake of creating spaces for other industries, such as cattle grazing/meat production and mining. These industries have profound negative environmental effects such as methane emission, deforestation and ineffective use of water and land resources.

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Wildhorses and Burros versus government economic interests, Nevada, USA
Country:translation missing: en.countries.united_states_of_america
State or province:Nevada
Location of conflict:Nevada
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict: 1st level:Biodiversity conservation conflicts
Type of conflict: 2nd level :Mineral ore exploration
Land acquisition conflicts
Intensive food production (monoculture and livestock)
Invasive species
Specific commodities:Land
Live Animals
Biological resources
Ecosystem Services
Project Details and Actors
Project details:

70% of the Bureau of Land Management's budget is spent on roundups and holding of the wild horses. 8 times more federal land is authorized for livestock grazing than for wild horses. The federal estimation of the grazing fees are consequently less then what the actual cost for the cattle owners turns out to be in the end. In 2014 it was 125 million dollars less. It is the tax payers that pays the difference. Despite this the meat from these cattle only makes up about 3% of America's beef supply.

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Project area:12,800,000
Level of Investment:BLM's budget for 2016: 78,298,000 USD
Type of populationRural
Start of the conflict:01/01/1959
Relevant government actors:U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management (BLM) -
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:The American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC) -
Return to Freedom -
Conflict and Mobilization
IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Local ejos
Social movements
Local scientists/professionals
Celebrities such as Sheryl Crow, Robert Redford and Viggo Mortensen.
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Impacts of the project
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation
Potential: Groundwater pollution or depletion, Global warming, Waste overflow
Other Environmental impactsImpacts on the direct survival of wild animals
Health ImpactsPotential: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Land dispossession, Displacement, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Court decision (undecided)
New legislation
Strengthening of participation
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Under negotiation
Development of alternatives:While Return to Freedom does not consider the wild horses and burros to be overpopulated since the rate of them compared to the privatly owned cattle is 1:50, and ideally would like to see no management at all of the wild horse and burro population (other than the natural predators). But they propose a fertility control as a feasible alternative to removing the animals from the grazing areas. The fertility control they propose (PZP) has been developed over 20 years and has been used with positive outcome on bear, elk and bison among others.
Instead of helicopter gathering and holding only management the fertility control could lower the costs by 40%.

American Wild Horse Campaign suggests humane fertility control through a federal wild horse and burro program that will also protect the predators and improve range stewardship. They urge for a more fair share of the resources on public lands for the wild horses and burros.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:The conflict between BLM and the opposers is still ongoing.
Sources and Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Kip Andersen, Keegan Kuhn (2014) Cowspiracy, DVD. USA

[1] Re-wilding North America. A plan to restore animals that disappeared 13,000 years ago from Pleistocene North America offers an alternative conservation strategy for the twenty-first century, argue Josh Donlan and colleagues. Nature, Vol. 436, 18 August 2005.
[click to view]

Miller, G. Tyler & Spoolman, Scott. (2012). Living in the environment. 17. ed., International ed. [London?]: Brooks/Cole Cengage Learning

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

American Wild Horse Campaign
[click to view]

Are Wild horses native to U.S.? BLM roundups challenged.
[click to view]

U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management: Wild Horse and Burro Program
[click to view]

Native species. Wild equids versus cattle: two controversial questions.
[click to view]

Return to Freedom
[click to view]

The ecological impact of horse as a keystone species.
[click to view]

A few well known names that support american wild horse conservation organisations.
[click to view]

U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management
[click to view]

Return to Freedoms proposed solutions to the conflict.
[click to view]

American wildhorse campaign in the news / court decisions
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Petition from 2010 against the BLM's roundup of the American wild horses and burros.
[click to view]

Petition from 2013 against the BLM's roundup of the American wild horses and burros.
[click to view]

Petition against BLM's plan to expand the gold mining in Nevada

The project would include the drilling of four open pit gold mines and the construction of miles of access roads, a water pipeline and wells, and multiple facilities i
[click to view]

Petition from 2016 against the BLM's roundup and slaughter of American wild horses and burros.
[click to view]

Other documents

Roundup of wild horses Courtesy of Steve Paige and Return to Freedom
[click to view]

Burros Courtesy of Return to Freedom
[click to view]

Roundup ofwild horses Courtesy of Steve Paige and Return to Freedom
[click to view]

Wild horses in BLM's holding pens Courtesy of Desert News and Return to Freedom
[click to view]

Roundup of wild horses Courtesy of Steve Paige and Return to Freedom
[click to view]

Roundup of wild horses Courtesy of Carol Walker and Return to Freedom
[click to view]

Wild horses Courtesy of Denver Post and Return to Freedom
[click to view]

Wild horses at Return to Freedom's sanctuary Courtesy of Stephanie Houge and Return to Freedom
[click to view]

Wild horse herd Courtesy of Tina Thuell and Return to Freedom
[click to view]

Cost and consequences - the real price of livestock grazing on America's public lands Report of the economic costs and consequences of livestock grazing, prepared for the Center for Biological Diversity. By Christine Glaser, Chuck Romaniello and Karyn Moskowitz.
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Andrea Bernro, Sara Frenning, Melina Pettersson, Tintin Grassman (Lund University)
Last update15/04/2017
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