Abstract

The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 provides federal oversight and protection for feral horses (wild free-roaming; WFR horses) that inhabit designated areas on public lands in the western United States. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) estimated in 2019 that over 80,000 free-roaming equids inhabited 29 million hectares on 177 designated herd management areas. This population estimate exceeds the designated appropriate management level of 26,785. To provide BLM managers with insights regarding the U.S. public knowledge and perceptions about the management of WFR horses in the U.S., we surveyed the public using an online survey process. We hypothesized that respondents from the western U.S. would be more knowledgeable of the ecology and management of WFR horses, because of their proximity to most of the WFR horses managed in the U.S. We stratified the U.S. into five regions, with the intent to acquire at least 400 responses from each; we met this quota in four of the five regions (n of southwest = 376). Overall, the U.S. public was unknowledgeable about the ecology of WFR horses and legal management options to control their populations. While there were some associations between region, sex, age, income, and each of our questions, the strength of these associations was very weak. Therefore, demographics may not be useful in predicting the level of knowledge of the U.S. public concerning WFR horses. Our results highlight the need for improved outreach and communication efforts regarding the issues and consequences of free-roaming equid management approaches.

Discussion

Our study represents an attempt to provide an initial assessment of the U.S. public’s knowledge of free-roaming horses in our western rangelands. Our results suggest that the U.S. public lacks basic knowledge about horse ecology and management on western public lands. These findings are similar to Kellert’s (1984) survey findings which reported that only a minority of the general public could be considered environmentally literate. This pervasive lack of public knowledge can be problematic for WFR horse managers because it can lead to confusion and disinformation concerning the impacts of WFR horses on western rangelands. This is a knowledge gap that could have implications for the public support of many management actions (Tisdell and Wilson 2004). Past studies suggest that public knowledge of wildlife species, including past management actions, influenced public support for conservation actions (Bremner and Park 2007, Cruz-Martinez et al. 2020, van der Ploeg et al. 2011).

If the general public does not understand how much the WFR horse population is over the management target in many areas, or where WFR horses are located, they may not understand or accept the need to increase actions to manage the overpopulation of WFR horses on western public lands. For example, less than 10% of our respondents knew how many WFR horses on our rangelands and only 25% correctly identified Nevada as having WFR horses, while about half the respondents correctly identified Wyoming as a state with WFR horses. There are several “famous” managed WFR horse herds, including the Pryor Mountain herd in Wyoming and Montana (http://www.pryormustangs.org). Perhaps the popularity of the Pryor Mountain herd influenced the proportion of the U.S. population that knew WFR horses were managed in Wyoming and Montana. However, this could also contribute to a misconception that all WFR horses a) have a distinct ancestry, b) are limited to the few distinct herd management areas that are popularized, and c) need protection from extinction throughout their distribution.

A minority of the respondents were aware that the horse is not native to North America. Similarly, Garrott’s survey (2018) found that fewer than 10% of respondents knew that WFR horses are not native to the U.S. Research has determined that the native status of an animal can influence which management options will be supported by the public (Drijfhout et al. 2020). Thus, future educational endeavors should consider messaging that explains the ancestry of free-roaming horses in the U.S., and their populations and distribution across North America – including herds in the eastern U.S.

Free-roaming Horse Ecology

The biggest concern in managing horse populations is regulating their growth via natality and mortality. Typically, horse populations increase 18-25% annually (Fort Collins Science Center 2016). Our survey indicated that most of our respondents did not understand the reproductive ability of horses. Similarly, few respondents indicated that were no common predators of WFR horses in the western U.S., although many indicated cougars were a common predator. Our question may have been confusing, because while cougars (mountain lions) may depredate horses in certain areas, this is not considered a common occurrence throughout their distribution (Andreasen et al. 2021). However, these responses indicate that when managers are discussing over-population concerns, the public does not understand the core concepts of population growth and decline.

The respondents also did not know the vegetation communities in which horses live; while some horses do live in grasslands, most live in high-desert and wooded environments (EPA 2022). Many respondents agreed that horses compete with wildlife for food and water. However, fewer respondents agreed that there was competition between horses and livestock. Because the western desert and woodland environments that support horses have low forage productivity, competition for resources between horses and wildlife and livestock is a concern (Scasta et al. 2018, Hennig et al. 2021). Without an understanding of competition between horses and ungulates, the public may not understand the necessity of managing carrying capacity on western rangelands. Thus, educational campaigns to explain this conflict may improve both understanding and support for WFR horse management strategies.

Free-roaming Horse Management

The successful management of horses on public lands generally requires the support of the public. In part, the support of management options will depend on the public knowledge and understanding of horse ecology and distribution. However, support will also depend on the public  understanding of what actions are authorized for use by federal management agencies. Our respondents were generally unknowledgeable about WFR horse management, including protections and methods to control their populations. This was similar to findings in Scotland indicating there was little understanding of wildlife population management (Bremner and Park 2007). While increased knowledge of a contentious management issue does not always lead to increased support, it can lead to increased understanding, which influences the ability of disparate groups to achieve consensus and make informed decisions (Riley and Gregory 2012). Managers should identify and implement educational and communication strategies that facilitate early and frequent access to clearly understandable information. This information may increase stakeholder ownership and engagement if it also identifies the consequences of inaction (Messmer et al. 1999, Garrott 2018, Davies and Boyd 2019).

Influence of Human Demographics

Demographic characteristics are often thought to be important predictors of public attitudes toward governmental policy. For example, age, race, education, and income have been shown as important predictors of support for climate change policies (Cordano et al. 2010, Holian and Kahn 2015). Within our study, respondents’ demographic characteristics (region, age, gender, income) did not appear to predict the extent of their knowledge of WFR horses. While some differences existed between knowledge indicators and demographic characteristics, the power of these associations was negligible. Thus, our study findings prohibit predictive assumptions concerning public knowledge about WFR horses based on where they live within the western U.S., or their gender, age, or income. However, our survey results illustrate several trends of note. For example, respondents earning comparatively the least (≤$25K) and the youngest (18-21) were the least knowledgeable about each of the legal options available to manage WFR horses. If increasing public knowledge can increase public support for conservation actions, an effective strategy might prioritize educational outreach that targets low-income and younger constituents (often the same population).

We documented very few regional differences within our results and did not characterize respondents based on whether they lived in urban or rural settings. This may have inadvertently caused a bias in our data. For example, California, included in the West, with a population density of 252.74 people per square mile, as compared to Nevada’s population density per square mile of 28.59 and Utah’s 67.63 (Shrider et al. 2021) may inadvertently contribute to an “urban” influence concerning WFR horse knowledge. In a recent study conducted in Utah, rural respondents generally demonstrated more knowledge about WFR horse populations, ecology, and management issues compared with the state’s urban respondents (Wood et al. 2023), although the association was similarly weak. As a rapid assessment, our analyses measured associations between one demographic variable and each question asked in the survey. Although the power of association was low, the presence of trends suggests that the analysis was too simple. Perhaps combining demographic variables with measures of environment attitude or opinion of natural resources to understand knowledge would result in a more robust predictor of knowledge.

Management Implications

Our survey provides insight into a gap in general knowledge that may be a tool that federal management agencies and educational institutions can fill for more successful management in the future. However, with targeted educational campaigns, the public can be more informed and engaged in management. A better-informed public, with greater understanding of the ecological classification and ecology of WFR horses, is more likely to support management decisions. Further research should be done to truly understand the public perceptions and values regarding wild horses and burros, as well as what management actions can be implemented with the public support. Research into the public values and perceptions, coupled with a messaging and communication system that includes social media may increase the public support and understanding of WFR horses and their management.

Use the link below to download the complete PDF version including graphs and tables.

Frey, S.N., Scasta, J.D., Beck, J.L., Singletary, L., and Snell, L.K. 2022, Public knowledge of free-roaming horses in the United States., Proceedings of the Vertebrate Pest Conference, 30. (D.M. Woods, Ed.)

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Also of Interest:

 
The 2005 Nevada Rangeland Vegetation Survey General Public Questionnaire and Survey of Responses. Rollins, K. S., Castledine, A., Swanson, S. R., Evans, M. D., McAdoo, J. K., Schultz, B. W., Havercamp, M. J., Wilson, R. E. 2007, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension Special Publication, SP-07-11, pp. 42
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Myers, T. J. and S. Swanson. 1997, J. of the Am. Water Resources Assoc., 33(3):647-659.
Nevada 4-H Annual Survey Summary Report 2018
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J. Baker-Tingey, B. Luckey, W. Evans, C. Stark, S. Chvilicek, L. Chichester, A. Hernandez 2020, Extension, University of Nevada, Reno FS-20-31