by Scott Smith, Communications Director

While the massive roundup of the famed Onaqui Mountain herd of wild horses in Utah last July attracted much outrage and national headlines, it was far from the only herd decimated by the Bureau of Land Management this year. Using a deadly combination of helicopters and baited water sources, the BLM removed or forcibly drugged with fertility control thousands of the federally protected animals from Western states throughout 2021, starting with the capture of 298 wild horses in early January from the Fish Creek herd management area (HMA) in central Nevada, to the removal of up to 3,555 wild horses from Wyoming’s Red Desert Complex HMA in October. 

Friends of Animals (FoA) knows that public backlash matters when it comes to ending animal cruelty and exploitation. There is hope to derail BLM’s wild horse extinction plan if the public keeps pressure on new leadership—Deb Haaland, Biden’s secretary of the interior; Nada Culver, the BLM deputy director of policy and programs and BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning—to demand reforms to rein in this rogue agency, which has obliterated the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971. 

But there’s another excellent way to help keep wild horses wild and free on federal public lands—go see them, photograph them and share their plight. 

As FoA has found in its campaigns to protect Africa’s Big 5 from trophy hunters, as well as through the chimpanzee sanctuary it supports in Gambia, promoting wildlife watching ecotourism is often the very best way to encourage conservation, whether it’s on the savannahs and in the jungles of Africa or the High Plains and Great Basin of the American West. 

As the writer and environmental activist Wendell Berry wrote, “People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know.” 

“The BLM’s belief that wild horses only have value if they can be adopted out is an ongoing tragedy,” said Priscilla Feral, president of FoA. “BLM should be fostering an appreciation for wild horses and other native species through ecotourism instead of wiping out every animal deemed a threat to cattle and sheep ranching. It makes economic sense, too.”

 According to the Department of the Interior Fiscal Year 2019 Economic Report, forage and grazing supported an estimated $2.2 billion in economic output and about 40,000 jobs. In contrast, the Interior Dept.’s lands hosted an estimated 501 million visits. Recreation on these public lands accounts for 469,000 jobs and contributes $60.6 billion to the U.S. economy. Worse, the BLM spends as much as two-thirds of its annual $35 million Wild Horse and Burro program budget to care for animals removed from the range; costs for lifetime care in a corral approach $50,000 per horse.

To help you get to know wild horses and become their defenders, we asked wildlife ecologist Craig C. Downer to suggest the best herd management areas to see them. Author of The Wild Horse Conspiracy, Downer has done extensive field studies of wild horses for FoA. What follows are his recommendations to see wild horses in four states— Nevada, Oregon, Wyoming and Montana. As you plan your trip, keep in mind that wild horses live in some of the most remote and, to humans at least, inhospitable territory in the American West. We can’t guarantee that you’ll see significant numbers of horses at any given location, especially the many HMAs where the BLM has chased them down to remove them from their home ranges.

NEVADA

The Silver State is home to more wild horses than any other state. Because of its combination of distinctive horses and spectacular scenery, the Clan Alpine wild horse HMA is a must see. 

The Clan Alpine Mountains is a spectacular desert range with elevations varying from 4,300 to nearly 10,000 feet. With the higher elevations receiving as much as 20 inches of precipitation a year, the vegetation is dominated by sagebrush and pinyon pine and supports a large and distinctive herd of 600-970 animals. These beautiful horses share the rugged landscape with deer, elk, antelope and mountain lions. The Clan Alpine Mountains are less than a 3-hour drive from Reno. Call the BLM Carson City District Office at 775-885- 6000 for information.

About 110 miles north of Reno is the Calico Complex HMA. Nevada State Route 34 going north from Gerlach will take you alongside several of these areas, known for their black volcanic rock formations and colorful earths as well as their colorful wild horses. The best way to see wild horses and burros here is by driving along Soldiers Meadow Road, also known as Humboldt County Road 200. The herd is within the BLM’s Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trail National Conservation Area. (Others recognize the Black Rock Desert as the site of the annual Burning Man community event.) FOR INFO VISIT: blackrockdesert.org; BLM Calico Mountains HMA web page 

WILD HORSE TOURS IN NEVADA 

The Reno area also boasts several wild-horse guided-tour operators. Sonny Boy Tours offers a wide variety of options for eco-exploration, including a four-hour tour of the wild horses in the Virginia Range. Located south of Reno, near Dayton, equine photographer Mark Terrell of Wild Horses of Nevada Photography has led day trips into the Virginia Range’s wild horse country for the past 15 years. The Pine Nut Mountains just east of Carson City is also prime habitat for wild horses; Carson Valley Tours offers two-hour photo excursions for small parties. 

MONTANA

The 36,000-acre Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range is situated on Montana’s southern border with Wyoming. Pryor Mountain mustangs’ lineage can be traced back to ancient horses who first evolved in North America and Eurasia but are thought to have temporarily gone extinct following the last Ice Age, before being reintroduced by Spanish settlers. The Pryor Mountain mustangs often have primitive markings such as zebra striping on their legs, indicative of this Old Spanish genetic lineage. Located south of Billings, Montana, and north of Lovell, Wyoming, the Pryor Mountains are situated on the Crow Indian Reservation and Custer National Forest, with portions on private land and Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. The Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center in Lovell offers maps and directions showing current options for viewing the horses, as well as tours. FOR INFO VISIT: pryormustangs.org

WYOMING

The BLM controls five HMAs located in and around the Wyoming Checkerboard area, encompassing 2.5 million acres of public and private land in the southern part of the state. These are very scenic areas with some magnificent mustang herds. At the northern edge is the 24-mile self-guided Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Tour. Watch for wild horses between Rock Springs and 14-Mile Hill, and all the way across the top of White Mountain. FOR INFO VISIT: blm.gov/visit/pilotbutte-wild-horse-scenic-tour

OREGON

The beautiful horses of the South Steens and Kiger HMAs in southeast Oregon are predominately pintos and paints in the South Steens and Spanish mustangs in the Kiger area at the far north of the Steens Mountains. This is spectacular country, with the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge just to the west. The best way to see both HMAs is the Steens Mountain Loop Tour Route. The 66-mile loop road takes you through eight vegetation zones, with views of Kiger Gorge and Wild Horse Lake. On a clear day from the East Rim Viewpoint, you can see beyond this part of “Oregon’s Outback” to Nevada, Idaho and California. En route back to OR-205 and Burns on the western side of the Steens Mountains is the High Desert Discovery Scenic Byway. Watch for wild horses along this stretch. FOR INFO VISIT: traveloregon.com/ things-to-do/trip-ideas/scenic-drives/ steens-loop-tour-route/