The U.S. wild horse population would be reduced 69 percent over the next six to 12 years under four options being considered by federal land managers.
The alternatives were laid out in a report to Congress prepared by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which claims the number of wild horses and burros already surpasses what public lands in 10 Western states can sustain.
“If wild horse and burro populations continue to expand, the impacts to animal and plant species will grow more severe across even larger swaths of the Western public rangelands,” according to BLM’s report.
Ranchers in the West have often blamed wild horses for trampling streams and consuming grasses, resulting in livestock grazing curtailments by federal officials to restore rangeland health.
“When you have degraded lands like that, everyone is affected,” said Tom Sharp, a rancher near Burns, Ore., and president-elect of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.
The current situation isn’t tenable, since the horse population is poised to nearly double every four years, he said. “It’s not a sustainable proposition.”
The BLM proposes decreasing the current population of roughly 86,000 wild horses and burros to the “appropriate management level” of 26,715 between 2024 and 2030 by rounding them up for birth control, sterilization, euthanasia and sale.
While the BLM argues that due to limited forage and water, the “most inhumane and costly solution is to continue to take no decisive action,” wild horse advocates claim the agency is exaggerating problems to make room for livestock.
Groups such as the American Wild Horse Campaign hope that despite BLM’s recommendations, Congress will retain existing restrictions on killing wild horses or selling them for slaughter.
“We do think Congress realizes the American people are strongly opposed to killing our iconic wild horses and burros,” said Suzanne Roy, the nonprofit’s executive director.
According to BLM, wild horses and burros have displaced native species — including sage grouse, pronghorn, deer, elk, and bighorn sheep — while areas they inhabit are more vulnerable to invasive species.
Caring for about 46,000 wild horses that were removed from rangelands and haven’t been adopted will cost the government $1 billion over the course of their lives in holding facilities, the agency said.
These considerations have led BLM to submit the following four options in its report:
• Under option 1, the “appropriate management level,” or AML, of 26,715 wild horses and burros would be achieved in eight years by using “all legal authorities” of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. More recently, Congress has curtailed use of sale without restriction — such as for slaughter — and euthanasia in appropriations bills, but this option would rely on those methods, as well as contraceptives and sterilization.
• Under option 2, the AML would be achieved in 10 years with birth control, such as Porcine Zona Pellucida or PZP treatments, and “minimal permanent sterilization of mares or stallions.” This option would involve increased costs for caring for wild horses in holding facilities and other off-range sites.
• Under option 3, the AML would be achieved in six years “using an aggressive removal operation in conjunction with sterilization of 3,000 mares and stallions gathered annually.” The BLM would also provide an incentive of up to $1,000 to adopt horses, which would be a high up-front cost but reduce expenses for holding facilities over the long term.
• Under option 4, the AML would be achieved in 12 years through sterilization and adoption incentives, with an emphasis on fertility control rather than moving horses to off-range sites.
The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association believes the first option would be most effective, but the prospects of euthanasia and unrestricted sale will probably render it politically unfeasible, Sharp said.
“This has become a very political issue,” he said. “I don’t believe that’s going to happen.”
The fourth option will probably prove more palatable in terms of public sentiment, Sharp said.
The American Wild Horse Campaign supports “humane” birth control, such as PZP, but opposes the removal of ovaries and testicles because they’re “invasive, dangerous procedures” in an uncontrolled range environment, said Roy.
Permanent sterilization also interferes with hormones, “taking the wild out of wild horses” and basically turning them into pasture horses on federal land, she said.
While the Obama administration didn’t resolve the mismanagement of wild horses and continued roundups, it’s troubling the Trump administration has perpetuated these problems while also pushing for slaughter, Roy said.
A population of 26,715 wild horses and burros would be “basically extinction level” and is based on a calculation of AMLs that’s arbitrary, she said. “There’s literally no scientific basis for them.”