Wild horse and burro population growth may soon overwhelm the federal government.
Television shows such as Westworld and Godless have captured the world’s imagination and helped romanticize the horses of the Wild West. These horses, however, cost the government millions of dollars. Managing environmentally appropriate population levels requires extensive time, money, and manpower. And if nothing changes, the management of wild horses could overwhelm the U.S. Department of the Interior budget, according to a recent study.
Wild horse populations declined rapidly throughout the mid-20th century due to human settlement and private capture. Frightened by this trend, a grassroots campaign fought for protection of these horses. This multi-decade battle culminated in the unanimous passage of legislation in 1971 to protect wild horses and burros.
The law provides for the management, protection, and control of these free-roaming animals. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service are now responsible for managing these herds throughout 10 western states.
Introduced by Spanish explorers, American horses that were once at the brink of eradication have flourished in recent years. Thanks in large part to the protection afforded by federal law, the wild horse and burro population has ballooned to over 81,000. The BLM now struggles to balance managing, protecting, and controlling these growing herds.
Given that wild horses and burros have no natural predators in the American West, herd populations double every four years. Under federal law, the BLM must determine “appropriate management levels,” and if the horse population exceeds these levels, then excess animals must be “immediately” removed. The BLM must perform an analysis of all environmental impacts and determine specific ranges in management levels. The BLM fixed the current nationwide appropriate management level at 27,000 horses. The challenge of removing and managing the excess 54,000 horses has proven both logistically and economically difficult.
Once a herd population exceeds the designated management level, the BLM begins the process for a removal. A removal involves BLM personnel going out into the range, capturing wild horses, and removing the animals to off-range facilities. Except in emergencies, the BLM must perform a site-specific environmental analysis before a removal can be initiated. That environmental analysis looks at alternative measures, impacts on herd dynamics, and other site-specific factors.
The BLM authorizes the use of helicopter drive trapping, bait trapping, roping, or chemical immobilization to remove wild horses or burros. In an average year, the BLM removes about 4,000 such animals from the open range. Removals, however, are controversial.
Various groups, such as the American Wild Horse Campaign, have sued the BLM to stop these removals, arguing that they violate federal law. The American Wild Horse Campaign points out that the domesticated livestock animals allowed to graze on federal land greatly outnumbers wild horses. In states like Utah, the BLM authorizes livestock grazing on ten times the amount of land that wild horses inhabit. Yet the BLM must manage the public lands for multiple uses, and the BLM argues that removal of excess horses remains the favored method for population management.
After the BLM removes excess horses, they are held in off-range “retirement facilities.” Over 46,000 horses and burros are presently held in these off-range facilities. Off-range management, however, costs taxpayers about $49 million each year. If the current management strategy continues, the wild horse program could cost upwards of $1 billion between now and 2030.
Given these rising costs, the BLM continues to analyze other forms of population management, such as fertility control, which comes in various types. The porcine zona pellucida vaccine remains the most researched type of horse fertility control. The Cloud Foundation, a wild horse advocacy organization, campaigns for increased use of the vaccine to balance herd population growth.
The National Academy of Sciences, however, found that no affordable and effective fertility-control method currently exists. The BLM does not employ large vaccine treatments, because their effectiveness is limited to just one year. The BLM must also inject the vaccine by hand since herd dynamics make darting mares impractical.
Sterilization of select mares could alleviate overpopulation concerns. The BLM has begun a project that will analyze the feasibility of removing select mares, spaying them, and returning them to the range. The BLM completed the first step of his program in October.
Some wild horse advocates oppose sterilization. The non-profit Front Range Equine Rescue took legal action against the BLM to stop sterilization measures. Front Range believes spaying procedures are dangerous, inhumane, and in violation of federal law.
Researchers project that, if left unmanaged, wild horse populations will begin to triple every six years. Without major changes, the western United States could follow in the footsteps of Australia, where over 400,000 wild horses roam the Outback. Conditions in Australia have escalated to such a degree that the government has contemplated shooting over 10,000 horses to alleviate environmental concerns. To avoid that grim proposition, researchers argue that the BLM should continue researching new ways to control herd growth.