The truth about wild horses in the American West

By Lee McDaniel and Brent Van Dyke

As you may have heard by now, the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board recommended last month that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) humanely euthanize or sell (without restriction) unadoptable wild horses and burros on the western range.

Perhaps you heard an activist group claim that 50,000 horses are now in line to be slaughtered or euthanized. Or maybe the story grabbed your attention on social media. We’re going to give you the full account – no sound bites, no half-truths, no sensational headlines – just the facts.

Wild-Horses-Wyoming

In Wyoming, BLM manages approximately 3,000 wild horses in 16 different herd management areas or HMAs.

It’s a numbers game, really, and the numbers aren’t pretty. In 1971 when the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed, there were 25,000 wild horse and burros on BLM land. The law directed U.S. federal agencies like the BLM to manage wild herds in ways that ensured “a thriving natural ecological balance and multiple-use relationship.” Per Congress’ directive, 179 herd management areas (HMAs) were established across 31.6 million acres in the American West.

Today, there were more than 67,000 wild horses and burros on BLM land. Now, that might not seem like a problem, but let us put that number into context.

BLM scientists have determined an “Appropriate Management Level” for the number of horses and burros that can be supported by a healthy range; that number is 27,000 – less than half of the current population. The 40,000 excess horses and burros have caused severe rangeland degradation – and in many parts of the American West, irreparable harm. Riparian areas have been trampled and compacted to such an extent that water quality has been diminished and historic watering holes for native wildlife have been destroyed. Through their constant search for forage, wild horses and burros have depleted native rangeland vegetation and shifted dominant vegetation to invasive species, increasing desertification and eliminating shrub and grassland habitat essential to vulnerable species like the greater sage-grouse. When they’ve exhausted available food and water resources – a phenomenon that is happening with increasing frequency – wild horses and burros die of starvation and dehydration.

The way the BLM has managed the current wild horse and burro population on public lands isn’t working – not for the people, not for the land, and definitely not for the animals. So what are we going to do about it?

starving-wild-horses-in-cold-creek

A starving mare and her foal, plus more than 200 other wild horses living in Cold Creek (an area about 30 miles west of Las Vegas), were gathered last fall by BLM as part of an emergency round-up.

Some have suggested BLM cancel livestock grazing permits in the West and open up rangeland to the horses and burros. This way, they say, the animals will have enough land and won’t starve to death. Well, it’s not that easy.

First, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (and other federal law) requires that public lands are open to “multiple-use,” so BLM, by law, can’t eliminate grazing permits and prohibit ranchers’ use of their permitted portion of the public resource. It must be noted that many ranchers have voluntarily reduced, and in many cases, completely halted their permitted livestock grazing in some areas due to wild horses depleting rangeland forage. Second, wild horse and burro populations double every four to five years (they’re not native to the U.S., so they don’t have any natural predators to cull their herds), so it’s not as if increasing their range would sustain their populations for long. For instance, since 1971, the wild horse and burro population increased by 250 percent, while authorized grazing on BLM decreased by 30 percent. By 2020, BLM expects there will be an estimated 130,000 wild horses and burros on BLM lands.

So why not round them up and adopt them out? It would give the land some rest and there are plenty of people who would like to own a mustang, right? Not quite.

Adoptable-BLM-wild-horses

The vast majority of adoptable wild horses gathered from BLM lands are held in federal holding facilities for years on end.

Right now, the BLM is housing, feeding, and providing veterinary care to over 47,000 wild horses and burros in off-range holding facilities. The cost of holding these animals costs the American taxpayers $50 million annually (two-thirds of the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program’s budget). And because the costs are so high, the BLM is only able to remove about 2,500 animals from the range annually – roughly the same number that meets the public adoption demand each year.

Over the last 10 years, adoptions have declined by nearly 70 percent. In fiscal year 2015, 2,898 horses and burros were placed into private care (2,631 adoptions and 267 sales), while on the on-range population grew by more than 10,000. In the history of the program, the greatest number of annual adoptions was only 8,000.

The BLM has used different methods of fertility control over the years, but without much success.

The most widely used fertility control technique is porcine zona pellucida (PZP), an immunocontraceptive that renders mares infertile for one to two years. PZP only works if the BLM is able to round up the same mares to be treated within two years of the first dose – and frankly, that’s a tough (and very expensive) go with wild animals that don’t care to be caught or darted. Lawsuits and the threat of more have prevented other, more permanent fertility and sterilization methods from being used on the range.

The advisory board sought to provide a recommendation to the BLM that would help the agency control the wild horse and burro population and begin the process of reversing the damage these animals have caused across the West. Unfortunately, BLM dismissed the recommendation within days of receiving it. NACD believes the agency’s decision was politically motivated and made to the detriment of both western rangelands and wild horses.

It’s time we come together, look at the facts with an open mind, and make a good faith effort to fix this. It won’t be easy, but it’s past time we’ve made some changes. The American West depends on it.

Lee McDaniel serves as the president of the National Association of Conservation Districts, the organization that provides a unified, national voice for the more than 3,000 conservation districts across the United States. Brent Van Dyke is the president-elect, and will assume the presidency in early 2017.

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