Exploding population of wild horses, burros strains BLM

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Updated Sept. 5, 2018

The Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse and Burro Program is at a crossroads, according to Alan Shepherd, the program's on-range branch chief. Too few wild horses and burros are placed into private homes each year. At the same time, herds continue to increase rapidly on public lands.

There were 81,951 animals on 26.9 million acres of public rangelands and 44,730 animals in corrals or pastures as of mid-2018, and yet the BLM had only 4,099 animals adopted or sold in 2017. In fact, the rate of adoptions has stayed around that number since 1996, but the number of wild horses and burros on ranges has doubled from about 40,000 in 2012 to the nearly 82,000 in 2018.

To give some perspective, the BLM says ideally 27,000 of these animals can live in balance with livestock and wildlife on public lands. The low rate of adoptions coupled with the similarly small number of wild horses and burros rounded up and sent to corrals or pastures—usually 4,000 or so a year—along with spotty success with fertility control and sterilization efforts and the restriction to euthanize animals only when they're sick means the population on public land is fast approaching 100,000.

So it's no surprise that nearly every herd management area on the rangeland is overpopulated by 100 percent to 1,500 percent.

Wild horses

This spells trouble for a number of reasons. For one, Shepherd said the overpopulation is having a negative impact on animal and environmental health because the sheer number of animals is degrading public lands, including wildlife habitats, and water sources. Then, when a drought or water shortage occurs, the animals get stuck in mud while looking for water. He said several emergency gathers are necessary each year to save imperiled animals from thirst or starvation.

Another problem due to population growth is that the wild horses and burros have been pushing farther outside their herd management areas on the ranges. As a result, they have been causing accidents on highways and venturing onto private property.

Shepherd said there have been 400 vehicle-horse collisions since 2006 in Nevada, which contains half of the BLM's public rangelands. In Arizona, the Phoenix metro area sees a mean of 200 vehicle accidents a year caused by wild burros.

Finally, the cost to taxpayers has climbed in concert with the population increase.

Just the off-range costs, which pay for the animals in corrals and pastures, have gone from about $30 million in 2010 to $48.6 million in 2017, or 58 percent of the program's budget.

"When you're spending $49 million a year just to feed and do veterinary work on animals taken off the lands for management purposes, it impacts a lot of what we can do," Shepherd said.

The BLM has been exploring all options, from partnering with private entities to increase adoptions to transferring animals to other public agencies for use as work animals to researching fertility control measures. But for the short term, the BLM remains between a rock and a hard place.

"Everyone's least favorite subject on social media is removal, but the only way we're going to resolve this thing is with removal of excess animals. There's no other way of doing it outside of euthanizing them to get an immediate effect. But the more animals we have to remove, the more money it costs," Shepherd said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the amount of acreage devoted to the Bureau of Land Management's wild horse and burro population.