Problems mounting for wild-horse management

Problems mounting for wild-horse management

Mustang population grows, costs rise, adoptions fall and 'no one has an appetite for euthanasia'
Feb 01, 2009

Reno, Nev. — The spiraling nationwide problem of how to deal with thousands of unwanted horses isn't just about domesticated horses.

It's about wild horses, too — as veterinarians, government officials, owners and horse advocates in 10 Western states know all too well.

One veterinarian is particularly well-versed on the subject because he's right in the middle of it — geographically and politically.

Boyd M. Spratling is a 33-year large-animal practitioner in Starr Valley, Nev., near Elko in the state's northeastern quadrant. Most of the managed wild herds are in his state.

He is the veterinary representative on the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, a nine-member panel that makes recommendations to the federal Bureau of Land Management, the government agency (under the Forest Service) that oversees the wild herds and the lands they roam.

Its members represent a balance of interests. Besides Spratling as the veterinary member, others represent horse and burro advocacy, research, natural-resources management, humane advocacy, wildlife management, livestock interests and the general public interest.

"We're an advisory group, but our recommendations usually carry some weight with the BLM," Spratling says.

According to the latest count available, there are about 33,000 wild horses and burros (29,500 horses and 3,500 burros) on lands the BLM manages under authority of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, a law (last amended in 2004) aimed at ensuring healthy herds and rangelands with sufficient year-round forage to support them.

Because herd sizes can double about every four years, the BLM removes — it uses the term "gathers" — thousands of feral horses from the Western public lands yearly to keep herd sizes in line with habitat capacity.

As a result, currently about 30,000 horses are being fed and cared for at some 200 BLM short-term (corral) and long-term (pasture) holding facilities. The agency tries to place as many as possible into private hands through adoptions, but those have been on the decline because of rising feed and fuel costs — and especially so since the economic downturn began to be widely felt. Adoptions fell from 5,701 in fiscal 2005 to 3,706 in fiscal 2008. That creates a huge financial problem, BLM officials say.

The agency says it can't maintain the system under its present budget, nor can it let the herds grow unchecked; that would mean environmental disaster — overgrazing of forage, malnutrition and starvation of animals, damage to native vegetation and wildlife habitats, more soil erosion and lower water quality.

Last year, holding costs topped $27 million, or about three-fourths of the BLM's $36.2 million total budget for the program. It seeks additional funding from Congress, but whether it will get the amount it says is needed to sustain the program is questionable.