Victims of their Own Success
When the wild horse herd shrank to fewer than 25,000 animals in 1971, Congress passed the Free-roaming Horse and Burro Act, empowering the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to maintain and protect the wild horses and burros. And a good job of it BLM has done. In fact, BLM may have done too good a job, as the wild horse population has now grown to more than 69,000 animals, a herd that has far outgrown both the BLM's and the land's ability to support it.
Of the 69,000 wild horses, only about 37,000 still roam freely on public lands in the West. This range land is so sparsely vegetated that it cannot support the larger and still growing wild horse herd. As a result, BLM has been forced to round up some 32,000 wild horses and hold them in expensive short-term corrals or long-term, privately-owned pastures in order to save them from starvation.
Along with the costs of sheltering and feeding the horses the public range land can no longer support, BLM's total expenditures for the wild horse and burro program have increased from $38.8 million in 2007, to $53 million in 2009, to a projected $69 million for 2010.
Program at a "Critical Crossroads"
In October 2008, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report declared that the horse and burro program had reached a "critical crossroads," having become unsustainable for the environment, the taxpayers or the horses and burros.
"The number of animals removed from the range is far greater than the number adopted or sold, which has resulted in the need for increased short-term and long-term holding," reported the GAO. "Since 2001, over 74,000 animals have been removed from the range, while only about 46,400 have been adopted or sold. Thirty-six percent fewer animals were adopted in 2007 than compared to the average adoption rates in the 1990s. As of June 2008, BLM was holding 30,088 animals in holding facilities, up from 9,807 in 2001. To accommodate the increased removals and declining adoptions and sales, BLM has increased the number of short-term and long-term holding facilities. If not controlled, off-the-range holding costs will continue to overwhelm the program."
Interior Riding to the Rescue
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has a plan he believes will place the wild horse program back on the sustainable - as in affordable - path, including the relocation of many wild horses to new preserves to be created on fertile grasslands in the Midwest and East.
In a letter to Congress, Sec. Salazar explained more details of the plan he said "will require bold efforts from the Administration and from Congress."
Wild Horses: From Precious Liabilities to Profitable Assets?
Key to Salazar's plan is the series of wild horse preserves to be established in areas of the US outside their traditional Western range. Noting that the grasslands acquired for these preserves would be more fertile and not subjected to the droughts and wildfires of the West, Salazar contended that the preserves "would provide excellent opportunities to celebrate the historic significance of wild horses, showcase these animals to the American public, and serve as natural assets that support local tourism and economic activity." In addition, the success of the preserves in publicizing the plight of the wild horses could encourage greater participation in the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Program.
To further control the growth of the wild horse herd, Salazar stressed that the horses transferred to the "showcase" preserves would be prevented from reproducing. It remains to be seen if this element of the proposal draws fire from animal rights groups.
In his letter to Congress, Sec. Salazar also proposes:
- Managing the new preserves either directly by the BLM or through cooperative agreements between the BLM and private non-profit organizations or other partners to reduce the Bureau's off-the-range holding costs. "This coordinated effort would harness the energy of wild horse and burro supporters, whose enthusiasm would also be tapped to promote wild horse adoptions at a time when adoption demand has softened."
- Showcasing certain herds on public lands in the West that warrant distinct recognition with Secretarial or possibly congressional designations. "These would highlight the special qualities of America's wild horses while generating eco-tourism for nearby rural communities"
- Applying new strategies aimed at balancing wild horse and burro population growth rates with public adoption demand. "This effort would involve slowing population growth rates of wild horses on Western public rangelands through the aggressive use of fertility control, the active management of sex ratios on the range, and perhaps even the introduction of non-reproducing herds in some of the BLM's existing Herd Management Areas in 10 Western states. The new strategies would also include placing more animals into private care by making adoptions more flexible where appropriate."