The Government Is Eradicating America’s Wild Horses

Sunshine Man galloped for 35 minutes before the gunshot.

The iconic palomino stallion died on the same open lands he had roamed for years, but they looked unfamiliar to him in his last desperate moments. The dust from the helicopter kicking up behind him, the roar of the blades ceaselessly bearing down — it was enough to make him flee as fast as he could despite the leg he had snapped in half while trying to regain his freedom. His pursuers eventually tired of the chase, and a wrangler felled him with a rifle shot.

Sunshine Man was one of 21 wild horses killed at the behest of the Bureau of Land Management during a 2023 roundup in Nevada. And 2024 is looking to be even bloodier as the agency seeks to capture 20,000 horses by September. At least 11 horses died in a single northern Nevada roundup as of June 29. Few people know that wild horses are being driven to near extinction by inhumane roundups perpetrated by the federal government and funded by taxpayers. Unless we do something to end this antiquated, barbaric practice, wild horses will disappear forever.

A few years ago, my film crew and I set out on what would become a five-year journey across the American West to capture footage of wild horses for a film I was directing — an adaptation of Anna Sewell’s classic, Black Beauty. I have been a horse person since my youth; but it was on this trip, in the heart of the wild, that I first encountered the enduring magic and astounding beauty of these sacred symbols of American freedom.

wild horses
wild horses

I also experienced the chilling conspiracy that was threatening to permanently eradicate them in the cruelest way imaginable.

Under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 — which established federal protections for wild horses — the Bureau of Land Management is authorized to remove “excess” animals to protect the health of the range.

For decades, the BLM has captured thousands of wild horses and burros, claiming that an overpopulation of wild horses is causing land degradation or that the horses are in danger of starvation. But a landmark 2013 study conducted by the independent National Academy of Sciences found that the Bureau’s own justifications for removing wild horses and burros are not supported by science.

The sinister truth is that wild horses are being used as a scapegoat for the multibillion-dollar livestock industry.

Numerous independent studies and experts agree that livestock grazing, not wild horses, is the major cause of degrading public lands. A 2022 analysis of the Bureau’s own data found that livestock outnumber wild horses and burros on public lands by more than 125:1. Livestock grazing is identified as a “significant cause” of land degradation in 72 percent of the areas that fail to meet rangeland health standards.

Yet thousands of wild horses are still subject to violent roundups. In 2023, more than 5,000 wild horses and burros were removed from public lands, costing taxpayers about $160 million.

I witnessed these horrific roundups firsthand while filming my documentary, Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West. 

The BLM uses helicopters to chase wild horses — including pregnant mares, elderly horses, and foals no more than a day old — for miles, sometimes in extreme heat, on grueling and dangerous terrain to the point of injury, exhaustion, and death. More horrific injuries occur as the terrified horses are forced into “trap sites” — narrowly fenced-in areas on the range where the horses collide in the melee, sometimes breaking their legs or necks as they try to escape.

The BLM repeatedly refused my film crew and journalists from the Associated Press access to the trap sites where deaths and injuries often occur. When we were eventually allowed access, we documented the horrendous conditions. We saw pain and terror in the horses’ eyes as blood streamed down their faces. I’ll never forget the sound of their cries as they were separated from their families.

The BLM insists helicopter roundups are humane — but there is nothing humane about using a helicopter to chase a highly intelligent, federally protected animal to its death. This is abuse.

Ashley Avis (far right) questions BLM representative Lisa Reid (far left) on location while filming 'Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West' in Utah.
Ashley Avis (far right) questions BLM representative Lisa Reid (far left) on location while filming ‘Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West’ in Utah.

What is more infuriating is that the government spends millions of taxpayer dollars to hire roundup contractors, awarding one contractor, Cattoor Livestock Roundup Company, nearly $29 million alone.

Even if a horse survives capture, there is no telling what awaits them. A lucky few are adopted into sanctuaries. Some 60,000 are incarcerated in holding facilities, often under appalling conditions, costing taxpayers $78 million annually. And many others are auctioned off to kill buyers, who ship them to Canada or Mexico for slaughter because the practice is illegal in the United States.

The Wild Horse and Burro Protection Act of 2023 would help end this brutality by banning the use of helicopters and other aircraft in roundups to prevent needless cruelty, injury, and death. But to preserve our nation’s natural wonder and beauty for future generations, and ensure no more horses endure what Sunshine Man did, rounding up wild horses and scapegoating them for the profit of billion-dollar livestock companies must end for good.

This battle truly can feel like David versus Goliath, at times — and the livestock industry has billions of dollars to spend on lobbying. However, wild horses are not voiceless. Quite the opposite. I’ve been in awe of the thousands of children who have joined the “I Stand With Wild Horses” campaign, contacting their lawmakers in an effort to save America’s last wild horses. These young voices give me hope.

To quote Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, “if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.” Congress can no longer be sharers in the guilt. It’s time to stand with wild horses.

Ashley Avis is a Hollywood director and founder of the Wild Beauty Foundation, best known for writing and directing Disney’s Black Beauty and the upcoming City of Angels for Warner Brothers.

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