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Energy and Environment

The BLM is planning to gather Nevada’s wild horses in record numbers

A close-up of several horses placed in a fenced area. The horses are close to each other and two are looking toward the camera.
BLM Nevada
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Flickr Creative Commons
Horses in temporary holding at the Pancake Complex gather west of Ely, Nev., in early February, 2022.

The Bureau of Land Management is in the process of capturing and removing more wild horses and burros from the West than ever before, and climate change might factor into its decision.

With a historically high operational budget of more than $150 million, the Bureau of Land Management plans to capture at least 22,000 wild horses and burros — nearly doubling the number they captured in 2021. If achieved, this will be the largest number ever collected from the American West in a single year. BLM spokesperson Jason Lutterman says wild horse populations in Nevada have been skyrocketing for years.

“Just last year, we estimated there were more than 86,000 wild horses and burros on public lands,” says Lutterman. “But those same lands, we estimate, can only sustainably support about 27,000 wild horses and burros while leaving enough resources for other uses — such as for wildlife and any authorized livestock grazing.”

A bar graph representing Nevada’s population of 42,994 wild horses, 4,087 burros, and their combined total of 47,081, in comparison to the Bureau of Land Management’s assessed appropriate management level of 12,811.
Shelby Herbert
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Hitchcock Project
The Nevada Bureau of Land Management’s Appropriate Management Level (the ideal number of horses and burros that can occupy public lands at any given time to maintain ecological stability) is 12,811 — just a fraction of the current population.

Animal activists disagree with some strategies the BLM employs to manage horse populations. During these roundup operations, the animals may suffer serious injuries — even fatal ones. But they share some of the agency’s concerns about climate change.

“So, it’s pretty complicated,” says Grace Kuhn, a spokesperson for the American Wild Horse Campaign. “I mean, we’re living in a changing climate where wildfires are more rampant; drought is more intense — specifically out West. So, of course, where all the wild horses and burros live.”

The BLM says that it’s also stepping up population control efforts in order to reduce the risk of thirst, starvation and habitat destruction.

“Our plan of action this year includes both increasing gathers, while also expanding our fertility control treatments,” says Lutterman. “And this is partly driven by this extreme drought that the West has been dealing with for several years now.”

These gathers will continue until the end of September.

Shelby Herbert is a KUNR contributor and graduate student at the Reynolds School of Journalism. This story was produced in partnership with the Mick Hitchcock, Ph.D., Project for Visualizing Science.

The photo included in this story is licensed under Flickr Creative Commons.

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