Captive mustangs could cost $US1b over next 17 years – experts

Free-ranging horses from the Onaqui Herd, near Dugway, Utah.
Free-ranging horses from the Onaqui Herd, near Dugway, Utah. © BLM/Utah

Two academics have sounded a warning over the rising cost of America’s federally managed wild horse and burro program, saying captive mustangs could cost $US1 billion over the next 17 years unless changes are made.

Wild horse advocates have long been critical of the strategies used by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in managing the horses on western rangelands, with tens of thousands of horses now held captive in short- and long-term holding facilities.

More are now held in captivity than inhabit the wild.

A recent report by the National Research Council echoed that view, saying the current program was unsustainable.

The independent report warned that continuing the “business as usual” approach would become increasingly expensive and unproductive for the bureau, pointing out that the strategy of ongoing musters encouraged higher birthrates in the wild.

Now, a report published in the journal, Science, by two of the researchers involved in that report, suggests captive wild horses will have cost American taxpayers $US1 billion by 2030 unless federal management approaches change.

The Science report was written by Madan Oli, a professor in the wildlife ecology and conservation department of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, and Robert Garrott, a professor in the ecology department of Montana State University.

The pair said contraceptive vaccines were a possible solution to the issue.

In 1971, Congress instructed federal agencies to protect and manage wild horses, monitor the population and remove horses when numbers exceeded established population goals.

As Garrott and Oli wrote, thousands of those horses are now kept, not as the untamed creatures many associate with the Wild West, but as domesticated livestock, living out the decades in pastures, for which the pasture owners are compensated.

The problem, the pair confirmed, is that the cost of maintaining the captive horses is increasingly unsustainable. For the 17 years from 2013 until 2030, caring for the horses will cost taxpayers $US1.1 billion, Oli said, and $US67 million annually after that.

The BLM now reports 33,000 free-roaming horses in the western US, but even more – roughly 45,000 – are in holding facilities.

When wild horse numbers grow too large, they are rounded up and taken to short-term holding facilities, where the bureau puts many up for sale or adoption.

If they are too ill for either, they are euthanized, but federal officials are barred from euthanizing healthy horses. Healthy horses not sold or adopted are moved to long-term holding facilities, where they typically remain for the rest of their lives.

The National Research Council committee on which Garrott and Oli served concluded that if horse populations were left unmanaged, the number of horses on public lands would triple about every six years until eventually, food and water supplies were thin.

The wild horse population has been growing at an annual rate of between 15 and 20 percent, Oli said.

“If current management approaches continue, there will be very little money left in the BLM wild horse and burro budget to do anything else but care for horses in captivity,” Oli said.

“Rounding them up is pretty expensive, and at some point, nearly all of the budget would be consumed by horses in captivity. It will just be totally unsustainable to continue business as usual.”

The researchers estimated that the 15 to 20 percent annual population increase in western horse herds could be halved if contraceptive vaccines were more widely used. Contraception for horses is labor intensive because it must be hand-injected. More research into new delivery methods could help, Oli said.

While the debate over wild horses has gone on for years, it is clear something must be done, the researchers said.

After dying out during the last ice age, horses were returned to North America by Spanish explorers in the mid-1500s, later mixing with modern domestic horses that found their way to the range.

Prolific breeders, their numbers multiply quickly in the absence of natural predators.

The paper concluded with a sobering look at Australia, where government agencies have proposed shooting 10,000 of the 400,000-strong wild horse population from helicopters to reduce the number of animals suffering under severe drought conditions.

“We need to think about what’s ethical, what we want to do. The worst-case scenario is that we do nothing,” Garrott said. “Simply not doing anything will result in a much, much harder decision in the future.”

Reporting: Mickie Anderson

A Critical Crossroad for BLM’s Wild Horse Program
Robert A. Garrott and Madan K. Oli
Science 23 August 2013: 341 (6148), 847-848. [DOI:10.1126/science.1240280]



8 thoughts on “Captive mustangs could cost $US1b over next 17 years – experts

  • August 27, 2013 at 10:25 am

    They have no natural predators? Of course they do. Also, special interest groups have been pushing the wild horses off of public lands. There’s room enough for them if the livestock farms, energy producers, etc. weren’t trying to use all the land for themselves. It’s nature. Nature always finds a balance if they were actually left alone. Birth control methods could have been used also but the real problem is who is using the public lands. These wild horses are supposed to be federally protected.

  • August 27, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    better to spend the 1b on drone bases in north Africa.

  • August 28, 2013 at 4:51 am

    The 1990-91 Government Accounting Office study proved the millions of cattle on public lands destroy the range and riparian areas and not the few wild horses. The National Academy of Science study recently completed but ignored found the roundups and removals are causing the 24% increase in breeding. It also called for an accurate census as some estimate there are less than 18,000 wild horses left free on their legal lands. 22.2 million acres have been taken from them and the near 50,000 in holding need to be returned to these zeroed out herd management areas. 70% of the herds are not genetically viable and sustainable now so there is no excess population. The 1971 Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act is being broken, and our public lands are being destroyed by mining, drilling and fracking plus over-grazing by millions of cattle and sheep. The Science article is not accurate IMO. Horses are a native species as proven by DNA and paleontological studies. They originated here and crossed the Bering Strait and were brought back although some believe they still existed here.
    Also 80% of Americans are against slaughtering horses for meat. See and for facts on horse slaughter. The FDA has classified horses as companion animals . They are not livestock

  • August 28, 2013 at 5:28 am

    Please ask your U.S. Senators and Representatives to support the Safeguard American Food Exports act, which will ban slaughter in the U.S. and the shipment for slaughter to Canada and Mexico. Safeguard American Food Exports act is S. 541 in the U.S. Senate and H.R. 1094 in the U.S. House of Representatives. This website makes it easy to contact your elected officials:

  • August 28, 2013 at 8:40 am

    I believe that ALL horses in holding facilities need to be returned to the land that the US government set aside for them. The lies need to stop that having these animals on these lands is ruining the land. I am also tired of the lies that rounding them up and decreasing the amount in the wild is necessary to maintain a good life for the ones in the wild! Take the cattle of the land that was set aside for the horses – this will stop the over grazing of the land. This land WAS NOT set up for the Cattlemen Asso. to graze their cattle – it was set aside for the wild horses to graze and live. It was set aside for every American to be able to go to these lands and enjoy them. It was NOT set aside for miners to strip if all its natural resources so the few can line their pockets. If there is so much concern that their is not enough grazing land – then instead of using millions of tax payers money to round up the horses and put them in the hell of holding facilities that ARE NOT a health place for them to live – use those monies to pay farmers to grown more hay to sustain them through droughts and winters. Those people that you use tax payers money to round them up – pay them instead to put hay and water source out for the horses. By paying farmers to grow more hay it could give many farmers the money to hang on to their land and to hirer other people who need jobs to maintain their crops of hay. This gives the farming communities the economical boast that is so needed instead of the farming way of life to go by the way side. The BLM needs to stop the abuse they are causing this creatures whose bloodlines go back to the same horses that helped build this country. This horses are a Historical National Treasure and needs to be protected not just garbage that needs to be thrown away.

  • August 28, 2013 at 8:54 am

    If all the original lands deemed as horse and burro country (the original HMA’s) were restored, all the livestock grazing permits cut and livestock removed, and congress exempted the HMA’s from the Multiple-Use policy then we could turn out the 50,000 back to their original homes and not have to pay for them to be cared for. Mother Nature knew what she was doing…it was greedy men that mucked it up!

  • August 28, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    The changes that SHOULD have been made from the moment the BLM started ignoring the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse & Burro Act was to give the management of the wild horses to some entity that is not in bed with the Public Lands Ranchers – otherwise know as “Welfare Ranchers” who have been served by the BLM by needlessly removing horses off the lands Congress put them on so more cattle can be moved in – sometimes even before the roundup of the horses is even finished. They put more cattle ON than the number of horses removed! These horses in holding should NEVER have been removed from their Congressional mandated ranges in the first place. Of course they have predators – expect the ranchers don’t them around, and the BLM has kindly exterminated the natural predators for their Cattlemen buddies.

    What’s needed is changes to the Public Lands Grazing Program. There are millions upon millions of cattle destroying our public lands and blaming it on a pitiful few thousand horses. The cost of the horses even in captivity is NOTHING compared to the cost of the Public Lands Grazing Program which literally costs taxpayers BILLIONS EVERY YEAR. And the BLM won’t even increase the cost to the ranchers – who are paying the unbelievable amount of a couple of bucks a year – or reduce grazing allotments.

    Needless to say, cattlemen in other parts of the country have to pay the market price for grazing rights on land they don’t own. Despite what the welfare ranchers think, they DO NOT OWN our public lands. It’s WAY passed time to remind them of that.

    Many if not most of the wild herds have been illegally removed by purposely using incorrect counts of how many horses are on the range until these herds are no longer genetically viable. And still the BLM says their ranges are “overpopulated.” They’re overpopulated all right – with CATTLE!

    Grazing is Razing: The Big, Bad Impact of Livestock on Public Lands


    The Fudge Factor:


    Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West

  • September 14, 2016 at 8:12 am

    I am a long time Wild Mustang supporter and live near the BLM’s largest Corral. In 1978 when I moved there the Reno corral had 4000 horses. Today they have 130. The horses that are there have been rescued from the 3 year extreme drought. They want to save many more Mustangs but can’t because of political pressure from idiots like you idiots that know nothing.


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