Mustangs roaming the craggy, mountainous terrain of the West can be a blessing or a curse, depending on whom you ask.
The Bureau of Land Management has been charged with protecting, managing, and controlling wild horses and burros under the authority of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 to ensure healthy herds thrive on healthy rangelands. To maintain population numbers, the agency places a few thousand rounded-up horses in holding facilities or adopts them out every year.
The BLM's role has not been without controversy, though, as it has been criticized for not operating cost-effectively and taking too many horses off the rangeland.
Now facing a budget crisis, the BLM has proposed cutting herds by about 6,000 total wild horses and burros. Options floated by the bureau, including euthanasia, have caused quite a stir in the equine community and with the public.
As of this summer, about 33,000 wild horses and burros roamed 199 herd management areas in 10 Western states on about 29 million acres. The population exceeds the BLM's targeted capacity of 27,300. That figure doesn't include the 30,000 wild horses and burros in short- and long-term holding facilities nationwide.
Annually, the agency captures about 10,000 horses and, through its Adopt-A-Horse program, adopts out about 6,000; however, the economic downturn has prompted a sharp drop in the number of adoptions. Now those figures have dropped from 5,701 in 2005 to 4,772 in 2007.
The agency says the numbers should decline further because of a lack of space at its corrals and pastures and skyrocketing hay and grain prices.
The program's $37 million annual budget pays for roundups, finding suitable homes for the horses, feed, and veterinary care. Recent estimates put holding costs at $28 million, or about three-fourths of this year's budget.
BLM spokesman Tom Gorey said if the current pace were to continue, the cost of removing and holding the animals would reach $77 million in 2012; the budget is expected to stay static.
The bureau has not asked Congress for more money, "But if lawmakers want us to continue these policies of lifetime holding, good sales, and getting thousands off the range to reach the appropriate management level, our budget is busted," Gorey said.
To resolve the budget crisis, BLM Deputy Director Henri Bisson proposed to the Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board this past summer three short-term solutions:
- cutting herds by a total of 6,000 unadoptable horses
- stopping the roundups of horses
- allowing horses to be sold at auction without limitation on the number or the intentions of the buyer
The BLM won't make a final decision until after the board meets in November; no official date has been set for the meeting.
In the meantime, the Government Accountability Office will release an audit of the program this fall.
A previous 1990 GAO audit found that during the 1980s, the BLM would remove wild horses and burros but not bother to reduce livestock grazing. Ranchers contract to raise cattle, sheep, and elk on BLM land, and the livestock far outnumbered the horses and burros by a few million then and continue to do so today.
Also back then, numerous roundups had horses and burros exceeding the capacity of the Adopt-A-Horse program, so to deal with the overpopulation in holding facilities, the BLM placed 20,000 horses with large-scale adopters. This resulted in thousands of horses being sold to slaughterhouses, the report said.
The bureau subsequently instituted measures to prevent large-scale adoptions and adoptions for slaughter.
Today, the BLM faces a similar situation in that it has too many mustangs and burros in short- and long-term care facilities because of too many roundups by the BLM and too few adoptions.
Holly Hazard, chief innovations officer for the Humane Society of the United States, said about 10 years ago, the BLM started to put horses in long-term holding to temporarily deal with the "glut" in horses.
"This started out as a stopgap measure and turned into the most pervasive management tool they had. The decisions they made 10 to 15 years ago we are now wrestling with today," Hazard said.
Gorey said Congress removed the ban on the commercial sale and processing of horses and burros in 2004, but to avoid controversy, the agency has limited sales to buyers deemed committed to long-term care.
He says by doing so, 2,700 of these horses, most older than 10, have sold in three years at a time when there are 22,000 in long-term pastures in the Midwest, which are now filled.
There still is space left in the short-term holding facilities; however, it costs about $1.27 daily to hold a horse at a long-term facility compared with $5.08 a day at short-term facilities because of maintenance, housing, transportation, and hay costs.
Part of the problem of keeping so many mustangs and burros on the rangelands, Gorey said, is that they have virtually no natural predators, so their herd sizes can double about every four years.
Dr. Tom Lenz, immediate past chair of the American Association of Equine Practitioners' Animal Welfare Committee and current chair of the Unwanted Horse Coalition, said this happens because half the foals born are mares, and virtually all end up pregnant each year.
Overpopulation can cause overgrazing and damage to vegetation, leading to malnutrition and starvation of the horses, as well as soil erosion and other long-term damage to public lands.
The BLM could stop gathering animals from the range, but bureau officials say that would not maintain a thriving balance between the herds and the range. Also, the BLM legally has been able to euthanize healthy excess horses and burros since 1978, but it has not been.
Dr. Lenz said from a personal perspective, euthanizing a mustang or burro older than 9 or 10 or one that hasn't been adopted after three chances—solutions proposed by BLM Deputy Director Bisson—may be more viable than holding it in a long-term sanctuary for another decade or more.
"It's a pretty tough deal to have to propose that. I doubt if Congress or the public is going to go for it," Dr. Lenz said.
In fact, the mere mention of euthanasia or selling without limitation has set off horse advocates in a big way.
Among them is Virginie Parant, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, who says the BLM has grossly mismanaged the program and determines land use on lobbying interests, such as livestock, hunting, and gas and oil.
"With 30,000 horses on public land and 6.5 million head of cattle, don't tell me horses are in excess," Parant said.
In the short term, the HSUS wants the BLM to increase the capacity of horses and burros on the range by 20 percent because it says the numbers are not based on hard science. This also would put less pressure on the BLM to round up the herds as often.
Hazard said when an area goes through fire or drought, horses are removed and not allowed back, even when conditions return to normal. As a result, the practice has cut herd areas in half, she said.
The HSUS is involved in two large-scale field studies with the BLM to determine the best way to continue distributing contraception to the mares. Hazard has said in the next five years, the program could administer contraception on a more regular basis without rounding up the mares, by using water or other attractants in specific areas.
Gorey says that the BLM supports the research but explains that the vaccine is only in an experimental phase and has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
In addition, he said, "It is not feasible to gather wild horse herds every year to administer the vaccine, and it is very difficult to approach most wild horses and burros on Western rangelands closely enough to allow darting."
The HSUS also says the BLM should work to enhance the image of the mustangs and burros and advocate in the short term having a more effective adoption program. Dr. Lenz agrees.
"(The BLM) could put more effort into educating potential adopters so they know what they're getting into so they know how to handle them," he said. "It's not like a domestic horse that's trained yet. People with inadequate horse experience are not prepared to handle an animal that has not been at least halter broken or accustomed to people. It's difficult initially, and that's part of the issue."
Parant notes that while the shrinking adoption market and increased prices of hay and fuel aren't helping the situation, it would be disingenuous to blame the problem entirely on the economy.
She says the latest conflict is just part of an ongoing battle that's been waged for centuries between ranchers and the mustangs.
"It's part of American history; it just takes a different face these days," Parant said. "It's a little more political and a little less Wild West. At the end of the day, they're still looking at killing horses and thousands of them."