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U.S. Forest Service
Caring for the land and serving people

United States Department of Agriculture

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Picture of running wild horses.
G. Studinski©, USDA Forest Service

  1. Why do we manage wild free-roaming horses and burros?
  2. Why do we capture and adopt wild free-roaming horses and burros?
  3. What are the values of Wild Horses and Burros?

Why do we manage wild free-roaming horses and burros?

The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed, unanimously, through Congress and signed by former President Nixon on December 15, 1971. It became Public Law 92-195, which protects wild horses and burros within designated territories on both Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands. This law mandates that these horses and burros are managed in a thriving ecological balance with the land and as part of the natural landscape.

Equus species are part of North America 's natural ecology, as they evolved on this continent along with the grasslands. Fossil history clearly documents that equids developed in North America. The first equid, Eohippus, appeared in the Eocene Epoch 54-34 million years ago. This species was a small forest animal suited to the marshy environment of the time. Thousands of complete, fossilized skeletons of these animals have been found in the Eocene layers in North America, primarily in the Wind River basin of Wyoming . In the Oligocene Epoch (34-24 million years ago), the climate of North America started changing to a drier climate, and the forests gave way to grasslands. Mesohippus and Miohippus appeared during this time, and these fossils were also prevalent in Wyoming . Parahippus and Merychippus arose during the Miocene Epoch (24-5.3 million years ago) as the large grasslands evolved. Merychippus was distinctly recognizable as a horse. Equus arrived about 4 million years ago during the Pliocene Epoch. Equus is the genus of all modern equines. The first Equus were 13.2 hands tall with a classic "horsey" body.

During the first major glaciations of the late Pliocene (2.6 million years ago), some Equus species crossed to the other continents by way of the Isthmus of Panama into South America and the Bering Strait into Asia and Europe. Until about 1 million years ago, there were Equus species all over Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America in large migrating herds.

In the late Pleistocene (~10,000 years ago), there was a rash of extinctions that wiped out most of the large mammals in North and South America . All the horses of North and South America died out, along with the mammoths and saber-tooth tigers. These extinctions seem to have been caused by a combination of climatic changes and overhunting by humans, who had just reached these continents. For the first time in tens of millions of years, there were no equids in the Americas .

At the end of the 15 th century, the Spanish reintroduced horses to the Americas . Escaped horses soon resumed to a wild state and proliferated on the plains of their homeland. By the time of Anglo exploration in the 1800s, vast herds of wild horses roamed North America . Their habitat gradually shrank, along with the habitat of other large grazers, such as bison and elk, as settlement spread onto the plains. Herd size was controlled by ranchers and also by mustangers who hunted the horses or gathered them for sale.

Starting in the 1950s, public concern about the well-being of wild horses and burros grew. With the mounting interest and concern came the realization that a federal management, protection, and control program was essential. Hence, the development and enactment of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, which gave birth to the Wild Horse and Burro Program in the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

"Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands." ~Public Law 92-195

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Why do we capture and adopt wild free-roaming horses and burros?

Wild horses and burros have few natural predators, except for humans and mountain lions. Prior to the enactment of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, wild horses and burros were not federally protected species. Herd numbers were controlled by ranchers and by mustangers who hunted the horses or gathered them for sale. After the Act was passed, the only remaining population control was mountain lions and the managing agencies, i.e. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

Wild horses and burros have an average recruitment rate of 18% per year, so their populations double about every 5 years. Mountain lions do an adequate job of controlling wild horse numbers in only a few locations. The majority of herds need to be controlled by the managing agencies in order to protect the land from overgrazing and to protect the horses from eventual starvation due to overgrazing. It is for the health of the land and the health of the animals that "excess" wild horses and burros are removed from their territories.

"Excess" wild horses and burros are defined as animals which must be removed from an area in order to preserve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance and multiple-use relationship in that area. Both the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are "multiple-use" agencies, and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 requires that the agencies balance wild horse and burro use with other resources, such as livestock and wildlife.

The best means for caring for excess wild horses and burros is to find good homes for them with the American public. In 1976, the national Adopt-A-Horse or Burro Program was born. Initially, the public could adopt and care for a wild horse or burro, but they could not claim ownership; the animals remained under federal ownership and protection. In 1978, the Public Rangelands Improvement Act allowed adopters to obtain title to adopted animals. Under the current adoption policy, an adopted horse or burro remains property of the federal government until the adopter has proven to provide a good home for the animal for at least one year. Once that requirement has been met, title is granted to the adopter, and the animal becomes private property.

Some excess animals are found to be unadoptable. These animals are sent to federally funded sanctuaries or long term holding facilities in Oklahoma and Kansas where they live out their natural lives on the prairie. Although this is a nice situation for the horses, it is expensive for the government, and adoption of wild horses and burros is preferred.

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What are the values of Wild Horses and Burros?

America 's wild horses and burros have a rich history and are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West. Spanish explorers reintroduced horses to the Americas in the 15 th century. During the time of Spanish exploration, Spain was renowned for its quality horses whose genetic pool affected horse breeding throughout the world. Today those original genetics are rare, and yet a handful of isolated herds of wild horses still display this unique genetic code.

Other sources contributing to today's wild horses include losses from wagon trains, ranchers, pony express, loggers, and farm stock. Intentional turn-outs include Calvary remounts, stage lines, and bankrupt farmers and ranchers during the Depression.

Burros accompanied Spanish Missionaries to the Americas and were later used by prospectors as sturdy pack animals. Burros also worked in mines hauling ore and carried supplies into desolate mining camps. When the mines shut down, the burros were turned loose to join those that had escaped from missionaries and prospectors.

The animals that have survived on the range are a genetic and historic remnant of the Old West. The characteristics that were important in the Old West days are still found in our wild horses and burros: strength, endurance, and reliability. These animals are smart, as they've had to be to survive in the wild. They understand the social order of their herd, which lends them to also understand the social order of the human-horse (or burro) relationship. Adopters find the bond and devotion of gentled wild horses and burros to be great. Survival in the wild also demands that the animals are strong and efficient. They are medium to heavy boned, carry themselves in a collected manner, and are surefooted over rough terrain. Adopters find gentled wild horses to be a smooth ride, capable of performing all day, and burros are reliable pack and companion animals.

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