Beasts of Burden: Wild Horses and Burros Are Dying Hard Deaths in the West
Western rangeland is already taxed by drought, wildfire, and habitat loss. Why don’t we do something different for these free-roaming animals?
“WELL, I NEVER THOUGHT I’d ride up this wash and not see a burro.”
Travis Holyoak squints into the gully from beneath the shade of his straw hat. Despite the midday glare, the rancher can see plenty from horseback. The craggy mesas of Arizona’s Black Mountains stretch ahead of us, spring green-up just starting to recede from the slopes. At a distance, the land looks almost lush. Up close, there’s no mistaking it for the desert it is. Our horses pick their way past spiky yucca, catclaw, and gobs of dried burro dung.
The only thing burros are good for, a fellow rancher once told Holyoak, is making trails. A trail or two is welcome in this country, where my saddle horse occasionally stumbles on loose rock before recovering his feet. Dozens of trails, crisscrossing these foothills like the creases of an old man’s neck, are not.
Just the week before, Holyoak says, the Bureau of Land Management gathered roughly 400 wild burros from this grazing allotment to put up for adoption. A gather—removing burros or wild horses from public lands—is how land managers protect the health of overpopulated animals and the land itself.
And this particular public ground has withered under far too many burros for too many years. So have his cows. Holyoak is permitted to run 105 head on some 60,000 acres in the Black Mountains. As the burros have gotten thicker, he’s cut that to just 60 cows. With hundreds of burros grazing the same sections—especially during such prolonged drought—there hasn’t been enough food to go around.
The soft-spoken rancher started sending letters to the Bureau of Land Management a decade ago, asking for help. The burros, he wrote, were stripping vegetation, eroding soil, hogging water, and costing him revenue. He mailed one letter a month. Once, frustrated by the rogue donkeys eating his hay and taking bites out of his salt blocks, Holyoak sent the BLM an itemized bill for a few thousand dollars. He never heard back.
Still, Holyoak has a good working relationship with his BLM district burro specialist. And in the last few years, the agency has finally begun to gather burros from the Black Mountains. Its goal has been to reduce an estimated 2,000 burros to 478—the most the land can handle.
Now we’re both curious to take stock of what’s been left behind. Holyoak nudges his horse, Blackjack, out of the wash. The gelding picks a hoof-worn trail and follows it deeper into the hills.
‘Their Hands Are Tied’
You don’t have to look hard to find frustrated folks like Holyoak. He’s just one public-land stakeholder of millions seeking relief from the 82,384 horses and burros currently roaming BLM lands and squeezing native wildlife. The BLM is fully aware of the crisis. That’s why the federal agency is conducting the most gathers in history this year, with plans to move 22,000 wild horses and burros off Western rangelands for adoption or lifelong care.
The project has the full support of 30-plus hunting and conservation groups, but it’s an ordeal beset by red tape, budget constraints, and vehement public opinion. Under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, the BLM is tasked with protecting wild mustangs and burros from death. That law was primarily intended to prevent bad actors from rounding up horses for market slaughters. Congress unanimously declared horses and burros “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” A half century later, it’s painfully obvious those protections have worked too well.
Even more troubling, say many land managers, is that we’re trying to resolve the problem using the very tools that created it. That means gathers, off-range care, adoption, fertility control, and euthanasia, though the BLM puts down only critically ill or injured horses. Culls, hunts, and sales to the processing plant are off the table.
“The BLM has been dealt a really tough hand,” says Kevin Hurley, a former Wyoming wildlife biologist and the current vice president of conservation for the Wild Sheep Foundation. “Their hands are tied by the advocates, the activists, the litigation, the court decisions. … [But] you cannot stockpile an unlimited number of horses and burros on Western landscapes.”
The BLM is supposed to maintain 26,785 free-roaming burros and horses across 177 herd management areas in the West. Meeting that threshold, however, is like chasing a mirage: The BLM has never been able to reach it. Wild-horse advocates say that figure is too low. But given chronic habitat loss, increasing wildfires, and the two-decade megadrought in the West since that 27,000-head goal was set in 1971, there’s good cause to find that threshold too high.
Without intense management or natural predators, free-roaming equines can double in population every four years. Their numbers spiked as high as 95,114 in 2020, and they’re currently at three times the appropriate level. That’s why the BLM is ramping up gathers.
“I’m pleased that for the first time in 15 years, we’ve had a downturn in numbers the last two years in a row,” BLM director Tracy Stone-Manning told Outdoor Life in May. “That curve is not bending fast enough for the health of the horses or the health of the landscape, but it’s bending. For this issue—and for any issue that comes before us—the North Star is the health of the landscape. If we’re managing for the health of the landscape, [then] there are way too many horses on the landscape. … It’s not tenable for wildlife. It’s not tenable for healthy [lands], and it’s not tenable for the horses.”
Doubling down on gathers doesn’t come cheap. The Wild Horse and Burro Program received a record high budget of $151.6 million in 2022—a 31 percent increase over last year’s. Two-thirds of that is spent maintaining the roughly 58,000 horses and burros in off-range care, to the tune of nearly $50,000 per head over a lifetime. And that’s in a normal year. Hay prices increased threefold this summer due to drought and inflation.
Worse yet, there are actually closer to 280,000 free-roaming equines in the U.S. That includes tribal lands, which have more than 117,000. Still, the BLM manages the bulk of public-land horses and burros in the West. Nevada is home to 65 percent of the BLM’s wild horses. And Arizona has the lion’s share of burros.
Cowboys and Helicopters
When the BLM needs to gather horses. Troy Cattoor gets the job more often than not. The second-generation contractor says he handles about 60 percent of the BLM’s driven gathers and 60 percent of water- and bait-trapping gathers. If he doesn’t win the bid, someone he trained likely did.
“You have to maintain certain numbers at certain places or, pretty quick, there’s nothing left alive,” says Cattoor, who gathered 1,080 excess burros from the Black Mountains—including on Holyoak’s rangeland—this spring. “There are a lot of horses really in trouble.”
For nearly 24 days in a row this May, Cattoor and his crew were up long before the Arizona sun to avoid the worst heat and winds of midday. Depending on the size of each job (and this was a big one), Cattoor will run a crew of anywhere from a few guys to 25 employees. Those numbers include up to two helicopter pilots, wranglers on horseback, and his parents, who started the family business. BLM staff and a veterinarian are also on-site to ensure Cattoor and his crew comply with strict operating procedures and animal welfare standards. If the burros are covering too much ground as they’re herded toward corrals, the gather stops. If it gets too hot (100 degrees), the gather stops.
For his part, Cattoor erects corral panels, stakes wings of burlap to funnel animals into the corrals, and trailers animals off the range—all while coordinating his crew. During the spring, herds are relatively easy to work. Once the thirst and starvation of a high-desert summer set in, the atmosphere changes.
“They’re just dying poor and thin,” says Cattoor. “So when you’re catching them, you don’t know when the last time they had a drink is when they come in [to the corrals] … People don’t see that. I see it. I’ve driven out and seen the one that wouldn’t move from the helicopter. Or we’d ride up to one on horseback and it won’t move. He’s just waiting for the next place to lay down and die. And it’s probably going to be right where he’s standing.”
For now, though, the Black Mountain burros look healthy, if a bit skittish, when they arrive in the BLM holding corrals.
Cattoor says the crew was lucky on this gather because protesters showed up only for the first four or five days. Gathers are a management tool many animal-rights activists decry as inhumane. Helicopter gathers are a particular sore spot, with a Nevada congresswoman introducing a bill this year that would outlaw their use. That would be a mistake, says Cattoor. Helicopters allow land managers to gather animals in places cowboys can’t. Tough terrain—like the steep, craggy country of the Black Mountains—is one of them. That’s how Cattoor’s crew was able to gather as many as 83 jacks, jennies, and foals in a single day in rough country.
“The only time the helicopter is directly on them is when the media sees it, because [public viewing areas are] right at the trap, seeing the last push going in the gate,” says Cattoor. “Anybody that thinks, ‘Oh, it’s so much better to catch them other ways,’ don’t have a clue what they’re talking about.”
The BLM’s meticulous daily records back this up: Not a single burro was injured, accidentally killed, or euthanized during the Black Mountain gather. “We had absolutely no death loss on that job. So I’m pretty proud of that. To do that on any kind of gather for 1,100 head [is an accomplishment]. I don’t care if it’s gentle cows or gentle horses. And these burros are wild.”
While injuries do happen on gathers, they’re rare. Most euthanizations are the result of pre-existing conditions developed on the range. Of the 4,378 animals gathered in 2022 so far and documented on the BLM’s website, just 11 died from gather-related causes. That’s a fatality rate of .02 percent. When something does go wrong, it’s easy for activists to paint contractors like Cattoor as mercenaries, hired to remove horses from their range, pocket the check, and move on to the next herd. In reality, most contractors and BLM horse and burro program employees are lifelong horsemen and women.
“Horses are our life. Horses are my whole family’s life. So when someone says we don’t care about ’em…” Cattoor trails off with a short laugh. “Like my mom, [activists called] her ‘Horse Killer Sue.’ She has bottle-fed more colts than anybody across the state, got them buckets of water, spent nights up taking care of ’em. … Anything we can do to maintain them and keep them healthy, we do.”
Hunting in Horse Country
As soon as Holyoak spots the first burro, another materializes beside it. Both jennies are gray and slightly dusty as they stand on the hill above, watching us warily. The jenny in front with tattered ears trots a little higher as we ride past. She turns broadside and it’s easy to see the natural mark of a wild burro: a backgammon stripe of dark hair tapering from the base of her mane to a point on each shoulder.
We push ahead only to flush four, six, eight more out of the shady wash below us. Those jennies are accompanied by a foal and one brown jack that brays even as we round the hill and ride out of sight.
“Once you spot one burro, you start to see a bunch more,” says Holyoak. “They just appear.”
What Holyoak doesn’t see much of these days is bighorn sheep. The Black Mountains are home to the largest herd of desert bighorns on public land in the U.S. A few years ago, he would often spot them near springs or perched on a steep slope nearby.
“There are real problems with unmanaged horses and burros on ridge complexes that bighorn sheep—and other native ungulates and wildlife—should be using,” says Hurley of the Wild Sheep Foundation, citing the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming as just one example. Erosion and competition for water also concern him. Studies show horses will dominate water holes and deter big game like pronghorn from drinking normally.
Nevada bighorn and mountain goat wildlife biologist Mike Cox keeps careful tabs on these populations. His latest calculation shows there is nearly three times—285 percent—more horse and burro biomass in the state than deer, elk, pronghorn, and bighorn combined.
“That’s a pretty startling fact, that there’s more poundage of horse and burro on the Nevada landscape than there is native big game,” says Hurley. “That ought to concern the hell out of people.”
Part of the reason there’s such discord on the landscape is because “wild” horses and burros aren’t wild at all, and they’re not even native. Wild is a term biologists reserve for species that have never been domesticated. The burros in the Black Mountains are feral descendants of North African wild asses brought to the Black Mountains by miners and prospectors in the 1860s. Spanish horses arrived with the conquistadors in the late 1400s. Before that the last native horse roamed North America roughly 10,000 years ago along with megafauna like saber-toothed cats and giant ground sloths.
“Horses are the most charismatic invasive species in the world,” says Terry Messmer, a wildlands resources professor at Utah State University. “But they’re an invasive species. We have only a couple populations that still have some of the original genetics of the Spanish mustang. And most of the horses out there have been incidental or accidental releases. We have a lot of quarter horses out there.”
While the BLM can direct ranchers to relocate nonnative cattle or sheep if they begin to overgraze, says Messmer, there’s no such solution when it comes to horses and burros. Feral horses and burros range on BLM land around the clock without any natural predators. Cougars will prey on foals, but those are opportunistic kills.
“Sometimes you just get frustrated because all you see is horses when you’re glassing,” says Nick Walrath, a Wyoming elk hunter who works for Trout Unlimited. “Because they do, they stick out a lot more than elk, and your eyes are just drawn to them.”
It’s also vexing because when Walrath and his wife, Hillary, see horses, they know they won’t see elk. The two species use the same general area of the fragile sage steppe, but they don’t mingle.
The Red Desert is a key migration corridor. It’s home to the country’s largest herd of migratory pronghorns and to the finicky sage grouse. Sage grouse, studies show, decline when wild horse numbers exceed management levels.
“From the Red Desert to the Hoback is the largest mule deer migration in the lower 48,” says Walrath. “And those deer winter where a lot of the horses are. And in my head, I’m like, Let’s give the deer the best chance because they’re native. They’re native and they should be here.”
Some horse-rights advocates have made a case for redesignating horses and burros as introduced wildlife. Habitat managers have pointed out that if horses and burros are to be considered wildlife, then they should be subject to management through hunting—just like elk, deer, and wild sheep.
‘We’re Not Catching Up’
In February 2018, the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife announced a 2018 feral horse management hunt. It was designed to remove just 60 horses from the Carrizo Mountains in northeast Arizona, where the NNDFW was concerned about the horses’ impact on mule deer. The management hunt was canceled less than a week later due to protests. That spring, nearly 200 horses were found dead at a dry stock tank on Navajo land, mired up to their necks in mud.
“These horses weren’t shot or maliciously killed by an individual,” Navajo Nation vice president Jonathan Nez said in a statement at the time. “These animals were searching for water to stay alive. In the process, they unfortunately burrowed themselves into the mud and couldn’t escape because they were so weak.”
The pictures were gruesome to the public, but they also caught its attention.
“Nobody wants to see thousands of animals starving and dying in a tromped-out water hole in the desert, but that’s gonna happen,” says Hurley. “And when that does, I think everybody that said, ‘Don’t touch them, don’t gather them, don’t remove them, don’t manage them’—that’s on them.”
Hurley (another lifelong horse owner) is certain humane lethal management is necessary to supplement the BLM’s existing strategy. The BLM, for its part, is investing heavily in fertility control. The agency already treats a small subset of gathered horses and burros before turning them back onto the range, but most treatments are temporary and not 100 percent effective. (Holyoak says it’s not uncommon to see treated jennies with foals on his allotment.) They also come with their own set of logistical issues.
“I’m really interested in finding the long-term solution through fertility controls. The fertility control that we’ve used the most only lasts a year or two,” says BLM director Tracy Stone-Manning. “So we need like a gazillion volunteers on the landscape who are trained to dart mares in the butt … year after year. And those are the [animals] we can get to.”
New fertility control research does hold promise, according to Messmer and Hurley, but it must be combined with additional management solutions.
Holyoak reminisces about the days before the 1971 act, when he says ranchers could gather burros as needed and turn them over to the government for $75 a head. A helicopter gather will run from $300 to $500 per head, or sometimes more.
Many land managers want to treat horses and burros as a renewable resource that generates income instead of spends it. For some, that means selling horses. It also means managing herds not just for quantity, but quality. Stallion management could help reduce inbreeding and produce more reliable mounts once adopted. Currently, even saddle-broke mustangs have a reputation for flightiness.
At 51, Cattoor is the same age as the federal law that earns him a living. But even as the businessman in him knows he should shut up and accept the work, the contractor can’t help but think there must be a better way. The 22,000 horses the BLM is gathering this year will help, but the remainder are nowhere close to approaching healthy numbers—not to mention how long it will take the habitat to recover from such overuse.
“We’re not catching up,” says Cattoor. “We’re so far behind right now. If they run our crew 365 days a year, as hard as we could, we couldn’t catch the foal crop. We couldn’t even catch the foal crop this year, and everybody’s worried about us taking the last one off.”
End of the Trail
Eventually, Holyoak and I lose count of the burros still on this allotment after the Black Mountain gather. At least 50, we both figure, and probably closer to 60. The BLM is supposed to leave some burros behind, but it still seems like so many in just one spot. I wonder about all the ones we can’t see from here.
If I had hoped for a drink when we reached the spring, I was soon disappointed. It looks like a zoo enclosure. The water-carved rocks are carpeted in burro manure. Fresh excrement dribbles atop dried dung, which has been ground under-hoof into the sawdust mixture of a dirty stall. It smells like burros.
“Once a burro pees in the spring,” says Holyoak with a sigh, “nothing else wants to use it.”
The crude pipe fence built around the spring has collapsed against the tide of burros eager for a drink. The 40 clustered around the busted railings above us are reluctant to leave the water, and they scatter only when I climb the rocks for a closer look. They trot over a rise to 30 yards and stop there. The closest jack is poised to run but disinclined to exert himself in this heat. Their intent is clear: As soon as we leave, they’ll reclaim the spring.
We’re quiet on the ride out, thirsty and tired. Holyoak loads the horses, and we pile into the pickup. As we drive past an old mesquite corral, I finally realize what’s been bothering me about this place. Unless you count the burros, I haven’t seen a single wild animal all day.