Few symbols embody the American West like wild horses galloping through an endless sea of sagebrush. Unfortunately, there are now too many animals roaming the land and the plight of wild horses and burros continues to grow more dire as federal authorities in southern Nevada prepare for an emergency roundup of hundreds of starving animals. And this is not a unique situation as states across the West face skyrocketing horse and burro populations and dwindling forage to support them.
In response to the problem, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released a report last month that examines new ways to reduce the number of wild horses and burros to a sustainable level and save our western rangelands. The proposals have been met with ardent opposition from horse advocacy groups who claim it will lead to the virtual eradication of free-roaming horses and burros on the West’s public lands. This sort of rhetoric has become all too common, with both sides of the emotionally charged and logistically tangled debate guilty of peddling hyperbole. It is time to thoughtfully consider a range of options, which the recent BLM report outlines, that can protect the environment, conserve wildlife, and secure the future of wild horses and burros.
There are an estimated 83,000 wild horses and burros roaming on nearly 27 million acres of public land across the West. Under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, the BLM is responsible for the protection and management of these animals. It’s an exceptionally difficult task. The current population has tripled the designated “appropriate management level” of 27,000 set by the BLM, which considers wild horse and burros impacts on rangeland, water, wildlife habitat, and human uses. And the population continues to grow exponentially, with herd sizes capable of doubling every four years.
Consequently, we are faced with too many horses and too little available rangeland. Our public lands are being overgrazed to the point that horses and burros are starving. Loss of vegetation to overgrazing has also displaced native species like elk and bighorn sheep and decimated sagebrush and grass cover needed by the greater sage-grouse.
Historically, Congress has hamstrung the BLM’s ability to sell wild horses and burros and limited the use of euthanasia to control the populations. Instead, horses and burros are gathered up, removed from the range, and either adopted for a minimum of $125 or placed in government holding facilities.
Many of the animals that don’t find homes are transferred to long-term holding facilities to live out the remainder of their days. This arrangement comes with a hefty price tag — currently 60 percent of the BLM’s annual budget allocated to wild horse and burro management. The total costs add up to $1 billion over the lifetimes of the 46,000 unadopted and unsold animals lingering in holding facilities across the country.
Clearly, the present situation is not sustainable, and a menu of choices will be needed to address it.
One approach is to reduce the number of horses and burros on the range, as the BLM has suggested. Contraceptives and sterilization could reduce reproductive rates and help slow the growth of the problem. The BLM could also work with private partners, such as horse advocacy groups, to find and fund private pastures for horses gathered from the range.
Increasing adoptions would get horses off the range and also out of holding facilities. Offering a financial incentive, such as the $1,000 payment to adopters proposed by the BLM, would help cover training and veterinary costs while promoting adoption. Improving the training of wild horses and burros before they are adopted, such as through methods like prison inmate training programs, would make them more appealing to potential adopters.
Another approach the BLM should consider is to find market-based ways to increase the space available to wild horses and burros on the range. One possibility would be to allow for advocates to acquire public-land grazing permits for the animals. This is an approach taken in Virginia with the Chincoteague ponies, a wild herd that is owned by a local volunteer fire company. Each year the fire company purchases a grazing permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to graze the horses on a public island. This is a unique scenario, however, and implementing the approach in the West would require changing certain rules governing grazing permits.
Wild horse and burro management is a nuanced and emotional issue that requires more than a one-size-fits-all solution. Public land managers, both state and federal, need options to address the problem with tools and policies that meet the unique needs of our western lands and wildlife. It’s time to help them rein in the excess wild horses and burros in the West.
Matt Anderson is the director of the Coalition for Self-Government in the West at the Sutherland Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Hannah Downey is the policy and partnerships coordinator at PERC, the Property and Environment Research Center, in Bozeman, Montana.