Populations of federally protected wild horses roaming throughout 10 Western states are growing to such an extent they are destroying their habitat.
Wild horse populations have swollen so quickly federal authorities say they need new management options to limit populations and protect habitat the horses are destroying.
At an August 23 National Horse and Burro Summit in Salt Lake City, Utah, state and national officials met to discuss options for reining in horse populations. They agreed current wild horse numbers are unsustainable, with federal officials reporting the current population is nearly three times the size the rangeland can support.
Harmful, Costly Population Explosion
A July 17 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent auditor for Congress, said the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) efforts to control horse populations on the Western range are failing, with rangeland being damaged because of horse overpopulation.
BLM estimates federal rangelands can sustain approximately 27,000 horses and burros. GAO estimates the number of wild horses roaming wild on public lands and in holding facilities has doubled in the past 16 years to more than 116,000 animals, 72,000 on rangeland and more than 46,000 in holding corrals and other types of facilities. Another 90,000 horses roam on tribal lands. BLM spends more than $50 million each year to maintain government corrals full of captured wild horses and burros, GAO reports.
Limited Adoption Program
Currently, BLM has a program under which, subject to certain rules, members of the public may adopt captured wild horses. GAO found the number of horses BLM removed from the range was far greater than the number sold or adopted, resulting in the need for more and larger holding facilities.
Federal horse-population control programs implemented since GAO’s last review of wild horse management have proven ineffective at keeping populations at sustainable levels.
Federal law forbids the slaughter of wild horses in the United States for human consumption domestically or overseas. Under pressure from advocacy groups, BLM placed conditions on the sale and adoption of wild horses to Canada and Mexico, blocking adoptions if the horses are to be slaughtered or resold for slaughter in foreign countries.
‘Nothing Humane or Majestic’
Speaking at the summit, Aurelia Skipwith, deputy assistant U.S. Interior Secretary for fish and wildlife and national parks, says it’s cruel to allow unchecked populations of wild horses and burros to starve to death or destroy plants and harm other animals competing for scarce resources.
“There is nothing humane or majestic to see a wild horse starving to death or a wild burro dying of thirst,” said Skipwith, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal.
The Review Journal reports Skipwith said one step toward solving the problem would be for Congress to pass President Donald Trump’s budget. It includes a provision ending the ban on the sale of wild horses to buyers who plan on reselling the horses for slaughter.
Proposes States, Tribes Control
Members of the Utah congressional delegation, including U.S. Rep Chris Stewart (R-UT), at the summit shared their proposed strategies for managing wild horses. In July, Stewart introduced a bill to allow states and tribes to take over the management of wild horses and burros on federal land, allowing populations to be culled if states and tribes determine it is necessary to protect the range.
Matt Anderson, director of the Sutherland Institute’s Coalition for Self-Government in the West, said wild horse populations are harming themselves, other wildlife, and public lands.
“The wild horse issue is a very important issue in the state of Utah,” said Anderson. “Wild horses impact the range, other wildlife, the people’s enjoyment of our use of public lands, and frankly, their overpopulation harms the horses themselves.
“It is time for BLM and Congress to act and get this problem under control,” Anderson said. “Nobody wins when horse populations are too high. Not the range, not wildlife, or the people who use our public lands.”
Michael McGrady ([email protected]) writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Government Accountability Office, “Animal Welfare: Information on the U.S. Horse Population,” July 17, 2017: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/animal-welfare-information-on-the-us-horse-population