Free-roaming wild horses cross Utah range. Western states have struggled to manage booming wild horse populations. (Rick Bowmer / The Associated Press)

The article is republished from Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Wild horses hold a special place in the mythos of the American West, with images of free-roaming herds of mustangs grazing on vast public rangelands. But for some communities in New Mexico, the reality tragically differs.

Dehydrated and emaciated horses wander into towns such as Placitas, just north of Albuquerque, looking for food and water, often straying onto home gardens or private ranches. Their rangelands have been cleared out because of overgrazing and severe drought. Some residents step up when they can, some feeding as many as 20 wild horses with hay they buy themselves. Other residents don’t want the mustangs on their property, and feral horses have been involved in several recent car collisions.

While the public often thinks all wild horses live on federal lands maintained by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, hundreds of thousands of wild horses roam private, state and tribal lands throughout the West.

Some state and local officials want more autonomy to deal with herds however they chose, but face opposition over various management proposals. Some residents want officials to remove horses from the overgrazed land and put them in facilities, while others would put them up for auction, and still others want the horses to continue roaming freely. There is widespread agreement, however, that wild horse populations are ballooning, and fertility controls are needed.

In New Mexico, the growing herds have become a major concern, because there is no legal structure in place for the state or counties to manage those populations on their lands. That ties the hands of local authorities, said Democratic state Sen. Brenda McKenna, who represents one of the affected communities in northern New Mexico.

Last month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers that included McKenna announced plans to introduce legislation next year that would close the statutory gap.

Speaking at an event sponsored by the Northern New Mexico Horsemen’s Association, legislators said the bill would give the state and counties power to manage free-roaming horse populations, while also setting up funding for food, veterinary care, birth control and relocations to prevent overpopulation, potentially administered through a new state agency.

“It’s simply not sustainable the way it is now,” McKenna later said in an interview with Stateline.

Republican state Sen. Pat Woods, another backer of the legislation, has been trying to change state law around wild horses for the past six years to no avail. When it comes to wild horses, opinions get heated, he noted.

Previous versions of the bill would have allowed the state to put wild horses up for auction, but animal rights advocates worried the horses would be sold for eventual meat processing in Canada or Mexico. There’s also disagreement about whether wild horses should be defined as livestock or nuisance animals. Other versions of the legislation faced opposition from private property owners who felt the proposals would not keep horses from their land or dangerous highways.

This time around, lawmakers have invited differing groups together to hammer out a compromise to give local officials and organizations the authority and tools they need.

“These horses cannot survive here until we do something,” Woods said. “I just hate to see animals suffer. It’s not a pretty sight.'

The Horse Shelter in Los Cerrillos, N.M., rehabilitates malnourished wild horses, such as Polly, seen before (left) and after (right) treatment, and prepares them for adoption. As in many Western states, New Mexico’s wild horses have an overpopulation problem. Courtesy of Susan Hemmerle

Some underweight wild horses end up in the care of local sanctuaries such as The Horse Shelter, a 128-acre ranch and rehabilitation facility in the high desert south of Santa Fe. The hope is to adopt out some of their 70 or so horses after providing veterinary care and training, said Director Susan Hemmerle.

When horses come to the shelter, some are severely emaciated, she said. Their hooves are grown out, curving upward and sometimes a foot long. Some of these horses were born wild, descendants of ones brought over by European colonists hundreds of years ago. But some were set loose by owners facing hard economic times, and others escaped.

Hemmerle welcomed the draft bill from New Mexico lawmakers, which would allow counties to work with local horse rescues to care for and adopt out horses.

“There’s no question it’s needed,” she said of the legislation. “But it’s a very ambitious, very complex, very complicated undertaking.”

The problems in New Mexico and across the West stem largely from herd overpopulation. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which has managed wild horses and burros on public lands since 1971, estimates there are more than 82,000 horses and burros on federal rangelands across 10 Western states—more than three times the number of horses federal authorities say is sustainable for a healthy ecosystem. In its government spending package approved in March, Congress called the situation “a national crisis.”

But the horses that live on federal lands are just a fraction of the total wild horse population in the United States. There are around 300,000 free-roaming horses across many different jurisdictions nationwide, including on tribal lands, according to a July 2021 study in the Journal of Wildlife Management.

“The bottom line is Rome is burning,” said Terry Messmer, a professor of wildland resources at Utah State University and one of the study’s authors. “You have to be innovative in seeking some of these solutions, and we have to do it now.”

n October, Messmer will gather experts and organizations from around the country for the fourth summit of the Free Roaming Equids and Ecosystem Sustainability Network to find better ways to manage healthy herds in Western states. States must take some ownership in this issue, he said.

In Utah, lawmakers in recent years have appropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding to help bring attention to and manage the state’s wild horse population through contraception and removal from the range, said Mark Boshell, legal counsel and policy advisor for the state’s Public Lands Policy and Coordinating Office. It’s a drop in the bucket, he said, but it benefits crucial coordination between state agencies to reclaim landscapes damaged by overgrazing in a worsening drought.

“Wild horses and burros exist out on the rangeland and that’s a good thing,” he said. “But they need to be managed.”

Many state agencies and experts have invested heavily in contraception for wild horses. It is not legal for federal officials to kill healthy horses. Authorities resort to euthanasia only if free-roaming horses and burros are severely ill, and the last horse meat processing plant in the U.S. closed in 2007.

Contraception, usually administered by shooting the drugs into horses with air-powered dart guns, is the best way to deal with overpopulation, argued Terry Nett, professor emeritus of animal reproduction at Colorado State University. But it requires more investment by state and federal lawmakers, he said.

“There’s a lot of work to be done, and the problem is only getting worse,” he said.

While federal officials administer contraceptives to the herds, most of their resources go to rounding up thousands of wild horses—often using helicopters to chase the animals into traps—to remove them from overgrazed rangelands and place them in holding facilities. Federal authorities estimate it costs $50,000 to keep a horse in a holding facility for its lifespan, which usually lasts around 25 years or more.

In May, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, pleaded with the feds to stop mustang roundups in his state after 144 horses died at a holding facility in Cañon City, southwest of Colorado Springs, when they contracted an equine flu. Polis called for a “more cost-effective and humane” alternative—more birth control. Animal rights advocates and equine experts tend to agree with Polis’ position.

When applied in New Mexico, fertility treatments have been highly effective, said Karen Herman, director of the Sky Mountain Wild Horse Sanctuary, a free-roaming range where mustangs thrive alongside deer, wildcats and sheep. With their partners at Mount Taylor Mustangs, the sanctuary injects mares with the contraceptive vaccine Porcine Zona Pellucida, or PZP.

The vaccine has dramatically reduced wild horse fertility rates among the 160 free-roaming horses in Sandoval County—the location of the sanctuary. Compared with 2019, reproduction rates among mares decreased by 70% in 2020 and by 57% in 2021 after receiving PZP. With a booster two years after the first dose, the drug can keep a mare infertile for more than four years, she said.

“It’s safe for the animal, it doesn’t pass through the food chain and it’s reversible,” Herman said.

Furthering these fertility control efforts is crucial, said Jessica Johnson, chief government affairs officer for the nonprofit Animal Protection New Mexico and its lobbying arm Animal Protection Voters. Johnson is part of the coalition of advocates, experts and lawmakers that has been trying to shape the legislation that lawmakers will introduce during the 2023 legislative session.

But fertility control cannot be the only solution, said Placitas resident Mike Neas, who has fought against several proposals by Animal Protection New Mexico. Solutions must respect private property owners’ rights and keep horses off public highways. Proposals, he said, have not sufficiently met his concerns.

“I love horses, but I want to protect my private property,” Neas said. “We’ve got free-roaming horses in limbo. Private property owners don’t want to see them killed; we just want proper management.”

The bill will be just the first of several needed legislative fixes, said Johnson, who envisions the state establishing a big wild horse sanctuary or preserve down the line.

“Horses are just so deep within our history no matter who you’re talking to,” she said. “I do think there’s a sense that wild horses represent some better part of our past, something that feels very natural and spiritual and wild and free. And it’s heartbreaking to watch as these horses have their freedom and spirit taken away from them.”