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Summer 2003
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Finding Homes for America's Wild Horses and Burros With GIS

By Bob Schoolar, GIS Specialist, and Shayne Banks, Public Affairs Specialist, Bureau of Land Management

Currently there are approximately 38,800 wild horses on BLM managed public land in the western United States. To achieve and maintain an ecological balance, several thousand horses must be removed each year and placed into private care.

The public lands of the western United States are diverse, ruggedly beautiful, and majestic-as are the horses and burros that live there. Wild horses are born with the colors of the land upon them—the browns, blacks, reds, blues, dapple grays, and snowy whites—all reflecting nature's paintbrush.

These horses have always been a part of America's past, symbols of pioneer spirit and freedom. As settlers pushed westward, many horses and burros were released by, or escaped from, Spanish explorers, ranchers, miners, soldiers, or Native Americans—forming the first wild horse and burro herds. By the late 1940s these wild horses attracted mustangers—people who rounded them up and sold them to slaughterhouses. Public awareness of this inhumane practice led to the passage of two national laws: the Wild Horse Annie Act of 1959 and the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. These acts gave the wild horses and burros a legal right to live on public lands without harassment.

Finding Homes for Wild Horses and Burros

Today, America's wild horses and burros are managed in 10 western states. It is the responsibility of the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service to preserve and protect healthy herds of wild, free-roaming horses and burros. These agencies must manage herds in a manner that maintains or improves the rangeland ecosystem while assuring humane care and treatment. To achieve this, the BLM removes excess animals and offers them to the public through the Adopt-A-Horse or Burro Program. Most animals are adopted through weekend adoption events held in cities and towns all over the country. Approximately 100 animals are transported to a facility and adopted through competitive bid by qualified individuals.

  click to see enlargement
Shows targeted market areas in portions of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.

Now, what do wild horses have to do with GIS? Since the adoption program began in 1973, the BLM has found homes for more than 200,000 wild horses and burros. Unfortunately, on the range, wild horses reproduce at an annual rate of about 20 percent, so finding new adopters is a never-ending process-an equation with seemingly no solution. GIS became the means to answer a fundamental question: "Where are the markets?"

Looking for Better Ways to Do Business

The southeastern United States is one of the most active regions in the country for adoptions. The BLM, Eastern States, Jackson Field Office, in Jackson, Mississippi, typically conducts 12 to 18 adoptions each year throughout 11 states. Several years ago, the GIS and public affairs specialists in Jackson began looking for ways to enhance the marketing effort of these events using GIS technology. The goals of this approach were to be able to make better decisions when planning where to hold future adoptions and to focus marketing efforts in those areas most likely to have prospective adopters.

To conduct this analysis, it was essential that the GIS specialist be able to originate and manipulate large spatial and nonspatial data sets, conduct a variety of statistical evaluations, access demographic data, and quickly view the resulting GIS layers. Esri's ArcInfo, ArcView, and ArcView Business Analyst proved the perfect choices for this study. Initially, a simple spatial marketing model was developed using almost 30 years of data collected on nearly 80,000 past adopters.

All past adopters were mapped according to the addresses contained in a national wild horse and burro database. From this, a customer density layer was produced. This layer shows the number of past adopters per 100 square miles within each of the more than 40,000 ZIP Codes in the United States. However, just knowing where past customers have come from was not enough to reveal new markets or validate the strength of a past market. A second layer was developed from data collected for the 1997 Census of Agriculture conducted by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. This data contains a detailed accounting of the agricultural assets of farms in the United States including farms with horses and ponies. The data includes information on more than 300,000 farms. The second layer shows the density of farms reporting horses and ponies by ZIP Code. So, while the first layer provides a direct accounting of the location of past adopters, the second layer shows the distribution of horse owners in general.

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Shows targeted market areas in western North Carolina.

After integrating these two layers in ArcInfo, it became visually and statistically apparent that the data revealed significant geographic trends common to both themes as well as potential new markets. From these patterns it was possible to classify ZIP Code areas as either proven markets, potential new markets, or poor markets. This market segmentation process narrowed the focus to relatively small geographic areas. The GIS specialist classified the areas where the density of past adopters exceeded a national average as proven markets.

Not surprisingly, the analysis showed that the strongest of these markets was in areas that also had a high density of farms with horses, as indicated by the 1997 Census of Agriculture. In fact, while these optimal areas represent collectively only 6 percent of the land area of the United States, they contain 41 percent of all past adopters. In addition, there were areas found where the values are high for farms with horses but low in past adopters. These areas are targeted as potential new markets. Ultimately, the analysis showed that nearly two-thirds of all past adopters reside in ZIP Code areas that collectively cover only 20 percent of the country.

Practical Application

To date, several new business practices have been implemented in the Jackson Field Office with emphasis on site selection based on geographic trends. The office has targeted marketing in areas with a strong likelihood of success. For example, ArcView is used to quickly query and capture ZIP Codes of targeted markets. The resulting export file is used in Microsoft Access to produce mailing labels for promotional materials.

Thousands of people have discovered the value of wild horses and burros—as intelligent, hardworking, and sure-footed animals. Others have found a lifelong friend and companion. With proper care, the majority of wild horses adapt quickly to their new lives. Available coast to coast through the Adopt-A-Horse or Burro Program, wild horses are used for everything from endurance riding to show jumping and from cattle roping to pleasure riding. They can truly be called a "horse for all seasons and reasons."

For more information, contact Bob Schoolar, BLM GIS specialist (e-mail:, or Shayne Banks, BLM public affairs specialist (e-mail:, both of the Bureau of Land Management, Jackson Field Office, 411 Briarwood Drive, Suite 404, Jackson, Mississippi 39206 (tel.: 601-977-5400); or Terry Lewis, BLM chief of external affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Eastern States Office, 7450 Boston Boulevard, Springfield, Virginia 22153 (tel.: 703-440-1713).

For more information about wild horse adoptions, visit or call 1-866-4MUSTANGS.

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