Are American wild mustangs in poor welfare?
Mustangs and burros vs. the American obsession for meat
It’s ironic that for outsiders and Americans alike, a beautiful mustang running wild is an emotive icon of the country’s constitutional freedom.
However, populations of wild horses and donkeys have been expanding exponentially and are in direct competition with cattle for public land feeding grounds. Due to these pressures as well as reported welfare concerns for the horses, the US government has just proposed plans to capture, sterilise or euthanise these animals to drastically reduce their numbers.
There are many factors at play here which involve the politics of American public lands, the farming industry and animal activists: I’m not an expert on these debates and more information can be found in the references listed.
Evaluating the animals’ welfare is a subject within my area of expertise. “Poor welfare” of the mustangs and burros, due to starvation, is being publicised by the Government, ranchers and the livestock industry as a major reason for this intervention.
But does the available evidence support this, and if so, why have they been managed to a point where they are starving?
Some basic facts about the situation:
Free-ranging horses (“mustangs”) and donkeys (“burros”) living on public land are protected by the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFRHBA), and managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
The BLM’s mission is “to sustain health, diversity, and productivity of America’s public lands for the multiple use and enjoyment of present and future generations” (1).
Since the mustangs and burros have very few natural predators any more, their populations have exploded, increasing by 15-20% annually.
The BLM has calculated that the land can sustainably support 26,715 of these animals (the “Appropriate Management Level”), but currently there are around 86,000 in total as of 2018 (1).
Image from the Bureau of Land Management website BLM.gov, showing numbers of Wild Horses & Burros (WH&B) on public lands from 1971 to 2016.
Why would the horses and donkeys be in poor welfare?
The American population is increasing and their demand for meat is not abating. The average consumer will eat 222 lbs of meat in a year, and annual domestic production will surpass 100 billion lbs for the first time (2).
The livestock needed to produce this meat are grazed on 85% of public lands, and the grazing time is increasing each year (3). Bearing in mind the expanding horse and burro populations, there is clearly extreme competition taking place: with the livestock for enough food during the summer months, and during the winter with each other for the little, low-quality grazing that is left.
Fortunately, the latest independent studies are suggesting that a very small proportion of the animals are currently dying of starvation or dehydration (4, 5, 6). This is evidenced by the fact that the overall population is not currently “self-regulating”, although factors such as climate change may exacerbate these circumstances faster than we can predict (6). But, there are sadly already examples of mass deaths, for example in Navajo, Arizona just last week due to drought.
However, what is agreed by all experts is the current management of the horses is not sustainable (e.g. 4, 5, 6), neither from an animal welfare or economic point of view. If left unchecked, in the next 4 - 5 years the current population of horses and burros will double and cause a significant levels of mortality. By 2030, the animals kept in holding facilities will cost the United States over $1 billion.
Image of a mare in very poor body condition, BLM.gov
What other welfare concerns might there be?
Even if the wild horses and donkeys are not starving or dehydrated, there may be other welfare concerns that need to be considered by the BLM. Lack of good quality grazing means that the animals are likely to be malnourished, leading to chronic health problems. Pressure to constantly find food may lead to abnormal social groupings, i.e. many stallions living in close proximity, resulting in increased fighting and injuries to themselves and other herd members who get in the way.
There are currently 46,000 wild horses and donkeys held by the BLM in long-term corrals. It is unlikely they are in positive welfare states, achieved only through their needs being fulfilled. These long-term facilities pose many welfare risks: overcrowding, fighting, separated mothers and foals, and stereotypic behaviour are just some of the recorded issues. Welfare standards and independent inspections are necessary in this context, just as with other livestock, since there are a large number of animals being housed in the long-term.
"46,000 wild horses and donkeys are currently held in long-term corrals. It is unlikely they are in positive welfare"
This latest announcement signals a multi-faceted approach by the BLM to address the situation before it gets even more out of hand. Many different options for achieving the BLM’s goals (5) are available and should be carefully considered. Research into contraceptive techniques in this context has been going on for the past 20 years (7) and should be used wisely. Although controversial, the BLM should seriously consider releasing more land to the mustangs and burros, as some estimate this would cost less than maintaining the surplus animals in holding facilities (8).
Nevertheless, the BLM is making the first efforts to include the word “welfare” in its dealings: in 2015 they set welfare standards for their gathers, or round-ups (9). However, given the recent advances in welfare science and efforts towards measuring wild animal welfare, the time has come to develop assessment frameworks to reveal the welfare of these horses and donkeys as they cope in their environment. We also need to use welfare monitoring in the management of animals in long-term holding facilities, as well as those receiving contraceptives (see (4) for in-depth discussion).
Although other countries may not be facing such a complex and emotional debate as this, we should certainly take note. Similar human-wildlife conflicts are occurring with less charismatic animals but with the same devastating effects on their welfare. So far it is always the animals who lose out, but perhaps our improved ability in measuring their welfare will finally shine a spotlight their way.
So, in answer to the title question, it seems that only a small proportion of wild mustangs and burros are currently in very poor welfare, and a larger number may be experiencing reduced positive states due to competition for resources. However, current trends and factors such as climate change are leading towards a perfect storm where the animals’ welfare is at risk of declining very quickly.
If you’re interested in this topic, I would highly recommend….
This film follows cowboys Ben Masters and his friends who adopt 16 wild mustangs from the BLM, riding them from Mexico to Canada to raise awareness for this issue and the protection of public lands.
Director: Phillip Baribeau http://watch.unbrandedthefilm.com/ Twitter: @UnbrandedFilm
1. Report to Congress: Management Options for a Sustainable Wild Horse and Burro Program. Bureau of Land Management 2018
2. Americans Will Eat a Record Amount of Meat in 2018. By Megan Durisin & Shruti Singh for Bloomberg, 2nd January 2018. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-01-02/have-a-meaty-new-year-americans-will-eat-record-amount-in-2018
3. Statistics on Livestock Grazing on Federal Lands: FY2002 to FY2016. CRS Report 2017. https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/R44932.html
4. A report presented to the National Academy of Sciences Committee to Review the Management of Wild Horses and Burros. Animal Welfare Institute 2012
5. Hendrickson, C. (2018). Managing Healthy Wild Horses and Burros on Healthy Rangelands: Tools and the Tool Box. Human–Wildlife Interactions, 12(1), 15.
6. Garrott, R. A., & Oli, M. K. (2013). A critical crossroad for BLM's wild horse program. Science, 341(6148), 847-848.
7. Bechert, U. S., & Fraker, M. A. (2018). Twenty Years of SpayVac® Research: Potential Implications for Regulating Feral Horse and Burro Populations in the US. Human–Wildlife Interactions, 12(1), 13.
8. Winkler, Robert. "Wild Horses vs Cattle." Straight from the Horses Heart. The Desert Independent, 18 Aug. 2015. Web. 09 Nov. 2016.
9. Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program For Wild Horse And Burro Gathers. The Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse and Burro Program, 2015