21 Oct

Map of the Week: BLM Management of Wild American Mustang Herds

This map shows a loss of 25.6 million acres of designated wild horse and burro areas between 1971 and 2009.

By: Abigail Vandenberg 

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) controls more land than any other federal agency, with one in every 10 acres of land and 30% of the United State’s minerals under their domain. Their management approach has changed over the decades, with the agency currently focusing on a multi-use tactic dictated by Resource Management Plans. 

The BLM is also tasked with managing the wild mustang and burro populations that roam across 10 western states. Wild horse management is an enormous and controversial issue, although much of the general public is unaware of it entirely. For over half a century, wild horses have been at the center of tricky legislative debate.

The first law to protect mustangs was introduced in 1959. It prohibited both the use of motorized vehicles to capture wild horses and the act of poisoning water holes to kill them. This law was not very effective, and it was not until 1971 that President Nixon passed the ‘The Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act’ to protect the dangerously small population of mustangs at the time. The population at that time was so low because of the popular practice of brutally catching wild horses and selling them to slaughterhouses. Many ranchers believed–and still believe today–that wild horses are a nuisance to agriculture and ranching. 

Congress now admits that, “Wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” Mustangs and burros are the only two species aside from the bald eagle that are federally protected. However, the protective measures that apply to our wild horses are extremely different from those of our bald eagles. 

There are 86,189 wild horses currently on range across 10 states with another 51,697 off range in captivity. The numbers of each herd population and movements are monitored closely by the BLM. The new multi-use approach to BLM land has conflicted with wild horse movements as the BLM dedicates more and more wild horse areas to resource extraction

Round ups of wild horses occur frequently and at a great scale. In July 2021, the BLM spent five days rounding up 435 horses from the Onaqui Mountain Herd Management Area in Utah. Roughly 100 of the female horses received fertility control injections and were released back to their natural homes. The other 350 horses were sent to holding facilities where they will enter permanent captivity. This was just one of many instances within the first half of 2021. The BLM has so far removed 4,391 horses with the goal to remove another 11,600 by the end of the year. 

The majority of U.S. citizens are unaware of the wild mustang roundups, yet these practices cost taxpayers over $100 million dollars every year. The holding and caring of horses that are held in off range facilities costs another $50 million per year. Helicopters are often used during this corralling process. The left map shows scheduled roundups that were planned in 2012-2013 as an example.

This is a very geospatial problem, yet the outdated and underwhelming maps that do exist (such as the two maps above) do not adequately address or emphasize the magnitude of BLM wild horse management. The underrepresentation of this national dilemma is an opportunity to use geospatial tactics and data visualization tools to raise awareness about BLM decisions when it comes to the American Mustang.


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