The federal practice of keeping wild horses in captivity is swallowing ever-larger chunks of the annual budget allocated to the Bureau of Land Management to manage the animals across the western rangelands, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) review notes.
The figures in the 34-page review requested by lawmakers paint a sober picture of the costs around the current program, which has long been criticized by wild horse advocates as being costly and inefficient.
Advocates have argued for other on-range management options, with some believing greater use needed to be made of long-acting contraceptives.
The GAO found there could be as many as 9.2 million domesticated equines — including horses, burros, and mules — in the US, and at least 200,000 free-roaming equines on federal and tribal lands.
It said managing the country’s equine populations posed several challenges, including affording care for them, finding new homes for unwanted horses, and protecting their welfare — including when they are in transit for commercial slaughter.
It also cited controlling population growth and addressing the potential environmental effects as issues around the management of the country’s free-roaming equines.
The GAO said federal agencies and stakeholders had programs to control population growth.
“These efforts,” it said, “are not currently affordable or practical to implement on a large scale for reducing annual population growth and maintaining most wild horse populations at sustainable levels, according to BLM officials.”
Figures suggest that the number of wild horses on public lands and in holding facilities had more than doubled in the past 16 years, to more than 110,000 in 2016, and that more than 90,000 feral horses reside on certain tribal lands.
“Managing the horse population in the United States could include relocation to new homes, euthanasia or slaughter, or steps to prevent breeding.”
The agency noted there were some differences in the options available for managing domesticated, wild, and feral horses (those not living within federally designated wild horse management areas):
- The capacity to find new homes through rescue organizations and adoption is uncertain due to limited available information, according to stakeholders.
- Domesticated and feral horses may be exported to Mexico and Canada for commercial slaughter. The BLM has placed conditions on sales and adoptions of wild horses to prevent their slaughter.
- Federal agencies and stakeholders have programs to control population growth. These efforts are not currently affordable or practical to implement on a large scale for reducing annual population growth and maintaining most wild horse populations at sustainable levels, according to BLM officials.
Stakeholders identified various types of impacts that free-roaming horse populations have on the environment, particularly in western states, the agency noted. These impacts may include harming native vegetation, altering the landscape, and dispersing seeds. Federal agencies support research to better understand these impacts.
The GAO noted that the total on-range and off-range population more than doubled from about 55,000 in the year 2000 to about 113,000 in 2016, according to BLM estimates.
Wild populations can grow at a rate of 15 percent to 20 percent per year and may double every 4 years, according to BLM and a 2013 National Academy of Sciences report.
The BLM removed almost 135,000 excess horses from 2000 to 2016. It held 45,661 excess horses off-range as of September 30, 2016 — almost seven times as many as it held in 2000.
The BLM sold more than 6,000 horses from 2005 to 2016, and adopted out more than 75,000 horses from 2000 to 2016.
BLM spending on off-range corrals and pastures has grown from about $US28 million in 2009 to almost $US50 million in 2016 (not adjusted for inflation). On average, from 2009 to 2016, this spending accounted for more than 60 percent of BLM’s budget for managing wild horses.
Looking at measures currently used for population control, the GAO noted that the BLM used contraceptive vaccination on only a limited number of wild horses on public rangelands, with each treatment lasting about a year.
“Due to the costs, limited duration of effectiveness, and the difficulty of accessing most areas, administering the treatments on a large scale is not currently cost-effective for maintaining most wild horse populations at sustainable levels, according to agency officials. BLM-sponsored research on longer-lasting treatments is ongoing.”
The nonprofit advocacy group Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation expressed disappointment at the report, saying it represented more time and money spent by Congress without holding the BLM responsible for decades of wild horse mismanagement or taking a stronger leadership role in creating a humane, sustainable vision for wild horses on shared public lands.
The group noted that, in 2007, the BLM was within 1071 wild horses and burros of its own population goal, yet failed to implement the fertility control vaccine program for which Return to Freedom and others have long advocated.
“Instead, BLM has never spent more than 4% of its Wild Horse and Burro Program on fertility control,” it said in a statement.
“The agency continued hiring contractors to capture wild horses and place them in expensive off-range holding facilities – a practice that the National Academy of Sciences in 2013 actually blamed for increasing reproduction on the range.
“Now, BLM is attempting to paper over its own mistakes with budget proposals that include allowing the agency to euthanize – shoot – healthy, unadopted animals in which American taxpayers have invested millions of dollars.
“Sadly, some in Congress are prepared to let BLM do just that, despite polls showing that 80% of Americans oppose horse slaughter and a similar percentage want to see wild horses protected.”
It said it was time for Congress to pass the bipartisan SAFE Act, which would place a federal ban on slaughter and the transport of horses for slaughter.
It also called on Congress to mandate that the BLM immediately invest in safe, proven and humane wild horse management tools.
The Government Accountability Office report can be read here.