Wild-horse roundup necessary, but not enough, officials say
National Report — While the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is going to increase attempts at using birth control to keep wild-horse populations in check this year, an internal report reveals that much more is needed to make the program sustainable.
The National Academy of Sciences has been charged with making an independent technical review of the Wild Horse and Burro Program to ensure BLM is using the best science available in managing populations on Western rangelands, but the bureau says the two-year study begins in March and isn't slated for completion until the spring of 2013.In the meantime, OIG says there is an urgent need for more research and testing of effective population control methods, and to reduce the need for short- and long-term holding facilities.
BLM manages 180 herd management areas spanning 31.9 million acres in 10 western states. The goal of the program is to protect wild horse and burro populations in their natural state, but also to protect the ecological health of the rangelands on which they live, according to the report. Horse populations on the herd-management areas (HMA) as of February 2009 were 36,940 (33,102 wild horses and 3,838 burros), which is more than 10,000 animals above the 26,578 maximum set by BLM.
When populations reach the maximum the rangeland can support, gathers are required, the report states. As a result, some injuries and deaths are "unavoidable," OIG says. In 2010, horses that died or were euthanized on herd management areas were less than 1 percent.
As of October 2010, BLM was holding about 11,400 horses and burros in short-term facilities and 26,400 in long-term facilities. Horses in the program are not sold or sent to slaughter by BLM.
Despite BLM's efforts, however, wild horse populations double every four years, and adoption rates are declining. From 2004 to 2010, wild horse adoption rates dropped from 6,644 per year to 2,960. At that same time, populations at holding facilities increased from 22,000 in 2004 to 37,800 in 2010.
"The current path is not sustainable for the animals, the environment or the taxpayer," BLM says.
The agency spent $65 million on the wild horse program in 2010—including $37 million for caring for horses in short- and long-term holding facilities, $7.7 million on gathers and $6.8 million on adopting horses out to the public.
"Our inspection confirmed that wild horse and burro gathers are necessary because BLM lands cannot sustain the growing population of wild horses and burros. The growing population of these animals must be addressed to achieve and maintain a thriving ecological balance of the authorized uses of the land, thus gathers are necessary and justified actions," writes Mary Kendall, acting inspector general of the Department of the Interior's Office of the Inspector General, in a December 2010 review on the wild horse program.
The review also noted that there are several ways BLM is working to control wild-horse populations and that there is no evidence that BLM or its contractors have treated wild horses inappropriately or inhumanely during gathers or at holding facilities.
"The program remains controversial and without pursuing much-needed changes, the program's cost will continue to increase," says Bob Abbey, director of the Bureau of Land Management. "This is where I am drawing the line. Every dollar allocated to BLM's wild-horse program is coming out of other important BLM-managed programs. We cannot continue increasing money for the wild-horse program while pursuing the age-old strategy of just gathering, removing and holding horses."