Feral horses are running rampant in the Western U.S. Despite serious, high-dollar removal efforts, recent reports show that feral horse and burro populations remain staggeringly high. A 2023 Bureau of Land Management (BLM) analysis showed that there are almost 83,000 such animals in the West—several times the population target of 27,000. The overpopulation of horses robs food, water, and habitat from native wildlife.

“In the past ten years, the issue of feral horses in the wild has only gotten worse,” Oklahoma State University researcher Jake Hennig tells Field & Stream. “Feral horses may be old news, but the problem is only increasing.”

Hennig is the lead author of a recent paper published in the journal BioScience that addresses the persistent issue. Hennig and his co-authors wrote that “for the federal government to sustain healthy populations, ecosystem health, and fiscal responsibility, lawmakers must properly define how feral equids should be labeled.”

According to Hennig, that means treating them as either wildlife, livestock, or feral pets. Right now, the government designates feral horses as “wildlife” but does not use the management tactics—ie hunting or culling—typically used to manage wildlife populations in North America. Instead, federal agencies use a tepid mixture of birth control and round-ups with subsequent adoption events.

“It’s important for the U.S Congress to figure out how we want to designate the horses—and then use the management tools for that specific designation to keep populations in check,” Hennig says. “In my personal opinion, I would label them as wild animals and manage them that way. And lethal control is an important management for any overpopulated wildlife population.”

Hennig and his co-authors emphasized that birth control efforts without other significant management tactics “is doomed to be a Sisyphean task.”

“If you just do birth control on wild horses, it’s not going to do anything. We can keep the status quo of doing removals and some fertility control, but the population is only going to stay constant or increase,” says Hennig. “The BLM removed 20,000 horses last year but the feral population actually grew by 5,000 animals.”

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Hennig does note that if horses aren’t managed as wildlife, the next best solution is to manage them like stray pets. “We would need to remove a ton of them and then administer fertility control widely across the landscape,” he said. “If done properly, that could keep them in check. But that would take a lot of effort and money.” Even so, Hennig said that lethal control might be needed in this scenario, too. If there aren’t enough people willing to adopt the horses, then they would need to be euthanized—like dogs and cats in animal shelters.

Hennig is not incredibly hopeful that his paper will prompt legislators to act anytime soon—partly because the issue has proven thorny for folks to agree on for a long time. “The emotional relation to horses is what makes it so tricky,” he says. “We coevolved with horses over the past few thousand years. We used them to change our methods of agriculture and warfare. There’s this innate link between humans and horses. It’s really hard for us to see them as wild animals and actually treat them that way.”

But, he argues that trying to do so might be the most practical solution to the problem.