January 24, 2019
When President Nixon signed the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act to preserve these species for posterity, I doubt that he (or any self-professed fiscal conservative) envisioned that the law would be misused to create a massive drain on taxpayer dollars.
Yet today, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spends $50 million a year in a seemingly endless cycle of removing horses from the range (which often involves stampeding the horses via helicopter) and holding them in government-run corrals.
The BLM, the federal agency charged with managing most of our country’s wild equines, contends there are too many wild horses in the United States. In reality, the issue of assessing wild horse populations across millions of acres over varied terrains is complex and generates considerable debate. Some wild horse advocates wonder how the BLM settles on ideal population levels for “Herd Management Areas” — tracts of public lands designated for free-roaming horses. Meanwhile, certain segments of the livestock industry view wild horses as competition for grazing land.
One point that everyone can agree on is that the status quo isn’t working and represents an inefficient use of funds. As the BLM recently told Congress, “The cost of caring for the 46,000 unadopted and unsold animals currently in holding will top $1 billion over their lifetimes.” Surely, there has to be a better and more cost-effective way to manage wild horses.
For there to be any progress toward a solution that satisfies all parties, the federal government must look to public-private and community-based partnerships. This is the fiscally responsible approach, and previous experience demonstrates that this strategy can work.
In Arizona, for example, the nonprofit Salt River Wild Horse Management Group — with permission from the U.S. Forest Service — began darting horses last year with the porcine zona pellucida (PZP) immunocontraceptive vaccine to keep population growth in check. Indeed, the late Sen. John McCain and former Sen. Jeff Flake encouraged the Forest Service to enter into a management arrangement with advocates rather than remove wild horses from the range. After all, these horses bring tens of thousands of visitors (and their tourism dollars) to the Tonto National Forest. Keeping these wild animals in their natural habitat isn’t just the humane option (and one that enjoys strong public support), it’s good for the region’s economy, too.
Similarly, in North Carolina, the Foundation for Shackleford Horses works with the National Park Service to maintain a herd thought to have descended from horses aboard 16th-century Spanish galleons that shipwrecked off the coast. Ever a sturdy bunch, the wild horses on the Outer Banks successfully weathered the effects of Hurricane Florence last fall. When Sens. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) pushed for legislation to enhance the survival of another population of wild horses in the Tar Heel State — managed through a partnership among the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, county and state officials, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — they emphasized the “need to manage … herds without excessive bureaucratic involvement.”
Granted, the BLM mostly operates in markedly different environments out west. But a budding partnership between the agency and the Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates in Nevada demonstrates that a community-based approach to humanely managing herds via PZP can substantially lower costs for taxpayers and ease the pressure on the agency to round up and remove horses.
Nevada is also home to the world’s largest industrial park — the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center — where over 100 companies, including Tesla, Panasonic, Walmart and Google reside. It’s telling that Tesla CEO Elon Musk touted the neighboring wild horses as a benefit to working at his company’s Gigafactory 1, and that tech company Blockchains LLC (the largest landowner at the park) opposed removing the Virginia Range wild horses that call this area home. Plenty of corporations care about stewardship, but common sense also plays a role. As a county commissioner who helped recruit major companies to the park noted, “There is a lot of room for those horses to roam.”
It’s not a coincidence that most of these examples don’t involve the BLM. Successful public-private partnerships with the agency exist — they’re just rare. The BLM would be wise to look at proven outside models and be proactive in building partnerships in the regions and communities where horses live.
Like any federal agency, the BLM is ultimately accountable to the American public. Poll after poll shows that Americans overwhelmingly cherish horses and support protecting them. Wild horses are a symbol of the pioneer spirit that is so quintessentially American. They’re an inexorable part of the rugged individualism that shaped this country. Is it any surprise that a monolithic and expensive government bureaucracy hasn’t developed a viable plan for managing a beloved American symbol of freedom?