Mustangs in Captivity Outnumber Free Roaming Horses

On the sagebrush and juniper desert southeast of Christmas Valley, Oregon, a wild mustang gave birth in 2012 to a distinctive foal. He was dark in color, a bay, yet with one blue eye.

His birth added another growing, hungry horse to the Paisley Herd Management Area, a tract that the Bureau of Land Management already considered to have more horses than it could support.

Within weeks, the young colt and other parts of his herd were rounded up by the BLM and trucked to a large government run corral just outside of Burns.

Blue Eye was branded, assigned number 1202297 and fed a premium diet of hay fortified with minerals and vitamins for the next nine months.

There, the foal was swallowed up in a $76 million bureaucracy that captures, feeds and stockpiles more horses than any other in the nation.

Watch the Documentary
Oregon Field Guide: Mustangs of Oregon




Roam Free



In Holding

National Holding Cost



Day per Horse

$46 Million

$46 Million


Wild horses in captivity now outnumber those in the wild. When Congress passed wild horse protection in 1971, the government estimated 17,000 wild horses and burros roamed across 10 western states. Today, the BLM estimates that population has grown to 40,605.

The Oregon corral, expanded in 2013 to hold up to 800 horses, at one time held 1,200.

“We’re complete maxed out,” says Rob Sharp, the manager for the BLM’s Oregon wild horses. “It absolutely can’t go on forever. This is not a sustainable way of managing these horses.”

Rob Sharp

Sharp says the nation’s wild horse program has reached a “tipping point.”

Blue Eye, like all the horses in short-term corrals, faced three strikes. The BLM would offer him for adoption three times.

If no one took him, he would be trucked far from his native high desert to long-term holding. The BLM rents pastures in states like Oklahoma and Kansas where old or unadoptable horses spend the rest of their lives.

“Wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”

— 1971 Wild Horse & Burro Act

Protected by Law

Congress intended for wild horses to remain wild. In almost poetic language, federal lawmakers in 1971 wrote into law that “wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” They declared “they are to be considered in the area where presently found as an integral part of the natural system of public lands.”

The BLM maintains that the land can support 26,677 wild horses. Wild herds currently exceed that limit by more than 14,000 horses. Without removing those “excess” horses, BLM managers say the horses will compete against each other, damage the landscape, run out of food and starve.

Joining many horse advocacy organizations, the Humane Society of the United States has taken a stand against government roundups.

Scott Beckstead

“There are at least nine million domestic livestock on BLM land,” says Scott Beckstead, the Oregon Director of HSUS. “You’ve got 40,000, roughly, wild horses. So are there too many horses? Of course not. It’s just a matter of the BLM’s priorities.”

The law also made clear that horses were to be part of a mixture of uses of BLM land, not its sole beneficiaries. The BLM is required to manage the land for the use of people, cattle and wildlife as well.

Finding that balance has produced 40 years of continuous battles.

“Man put these horses on these rangelands,” says the BLM’s Sharp. “In my opinion, based on the 1971 Act we have an obligation to manage for healthy horses and healthy rangelands.”

Audio: Discover how wild horses are maintained in Kansas.

The crisis, Sharp says, is “absolutely preventable.”

Blue Eye was caught in the middle. The young foal would never go back to the range. He faced the two options BLM most often relies on: adoption or exile to pastures in the Midwest.

Learn Blue Eye’s fate in Teens & Adoptions.