The challenges in managing America’s wild horses and burros have been laid out before lawmakers in Washington, with a senior Bureau of Land Management (BLM) official acknowledging that current initiatives were not enough to set a sustainable path.
“The BLM shares the concerns of members of Congress and the public about growing herd populations; herd and rangeland health; program costs; and the effectiveness of past management strategies,” the agency’s deputy director of operations, Steve Ellis, said.
He told the federal lands subcommittee, which operates under the House Committee on Natural Resources, that the BLM was pursuing several strategies. It was sponsoring significant research into fertility control, transitioning horses from corrals to more cost-effective pastures, working to increase adoptions, and seeking power to allow for the immediate transfer of horses to agencies that needed work animals.
“Despite these many initiatives, additional tools and resources are needed to bring this program onto a sustainable path,” he said.
The BLM manages wild horse and burro herds across 177 formally designated herd management areas in 10 Western states, with an appropriate management level set at slightly more than 26,700 animals.
It estimates that, as of March 1, more than 67,000 wild horses and burros – about 55,300 horses and 11,700 burros – were roaming on BLM-managed rangelands. The agency estimates that 10,000 foal births will occur in the current foaling season, which started in March and ends this month.
The agency is also paying for the captive care of 45,000 horses removed from the rangelands over the past two decades. About 14,700 animals are being cared for in corrals and 31,000 are being cared for in pastures.
Ellis said the adoption market had fallen dramatically and was now down to 2500 animals a year, while the BLM had gathered an average of about 6700 animals per year over the past decade. Those not adopted were generally returned to corrals or placed in pastures.
Costs for lifetime care in a corral approached $50,000 per horse, Ellis told the subcommittee.
“With over 45,000 horses and burros already in off-range corrals and pastures, this means that without new opportunities for placing these animals with responsible owners, the BLM will spend more than $US1 billion to care for and feed these animals, which have already been removed from the range, over the remainder of their lives.”
Ellis said the BLM currently spent two-thirds of its Wild Horse and Burro program budget – $US49 million, or 65 percent of $US77 million in fiscal year 2015- to care for animals removed from the range.
“Given this vast financial commitment, the BLM is now severely limited in how many animals it can afford to remove from the range,” he said.
The agency recently reduced the number of animals it was removing from the range to approximately 3500 annually – about the same number of animals that leave the off-range system annually through adoption, sale and natural mortality.
“Over the past seven years, the BLM has doubled the amount of funding used for managing our nation’s wild horses and burros, but current strategies cannot keep pace with constant population growth,” he said.
Through an aggressive gather strategy and high adoption rates in the 1990s and early 2000s, the BLM was able to reduce the herd populations to near appropriate management levels, he said.
“Unfortunately, as the adoption rates fell, more horses were put into corrals and pastures limiting the number of additional animals that could be gathered.
“Today, the on-range population stands at 67,000 and growing; longer term solutions must be found if we are to ensure the health of wild horses and burros and the public rangelands.”
Ellis said the BLM was taking steps toward longer-term solutions, including fertility control. He said the agency was committed to applying the best available fertility-control methods and vaccines to the maximum extent feasible and appropriate.
It currently used PZP as the primary fertility control vaccine. However, it was only effective for 12 months and required a follow-up booster shot within the first 15-30 days, which made field use challenging.
To address the issue, the BLM was investing in research over five years to develop better management tools, longer lasting fertility-control vaccines; and effective, safe methods for spaying and neutering wild horses.
Ellis said the agency needed help from Congress. For one, the BLM wanted to enable trusted agencies, which would commit to protecting and caring for the animals, to use the animals for important public purposes.
He said the president’s 2017 budget request also included a legislative proposal for a congressionally chartered non-profit foundation for the BLM.
“A foundation would strengthen the BLM’s efforts to link Americans to their public lands through an organization that would raise and spend private funds and foster constructive partnerships in support of the BLM’s mission.
“A foundation could vastly expand the BLM’s ability to work with partners to address the challenges facing the Wild Horse and Burro program and complement the agency’s efforts to find animals good homes and to manage populations more effectively through expanded application of fertility treatments.”
Ellis concluded: “Addressing the multiple challenges of this program will require congressional, stakeholder, and agency leadership on a long-term, sustained basis.”
He said the BLM was committed to working with Congress and stakeholders to develop a sustainable program.