The Bureau of Land Management's $1.1 billion fiscal 2018 budget request would reduce growing herds of wild horses and burros on federal rangelands by allowing for the "humane euthanasia and unrestricted sale" of potentially thousands of animals it cannot adopt out to other agencies or individuals.
BLM officials say the proposal is necessary to deal with the estimated 73,000 wild horses and burros roaming federal lands across the West and to handle the escalating costs of caring for and feeding the nearly 50,000 additional animals it has already rounded up in holding pens and corrals.
"Simply put, the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro program — in its current form — is unsustainable," the agency said in an emailed statement to E&E News addressing the budget request.
BLM's requested fiscal 2018 budget would cut funding for the Wild Horse and Burro Program to $70.7 million from $80.5 million in the fiscal 2017 omnibus.
The nearly $10 million in savings would come from reducing horse gathers and by selling some 9,000 "older, unadopted animals if Congress enables the BLM to use all the tools provided for" in the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, according to the agency.
BLM has the authority to sell and euthanize excess horses under the law, but Congress since 2010 has attached stipulations in Interior appropriations bills prohibiting BLM from using federal money to sell wild horses or to destroy any of the animals.
The law requires the agency to protect herds from harm but also to remove animals as soon as they exceed appropriate management levels, or AMLs.
The 73,000 wild horses and burros on federal rangeland are nearly three times the 26,715 animals that BLM says the rangelands can sustain.
The agency says it lacks the resources it needs to round up the 46,000 excess animals or to care for them over the lifetimes of the animals.
"To address these challenges, the President's Fiscal Year 2018 budget proposal requests the authority to use all management tools provided by the Act," the BLM statement says. "This authority includes removing some restrictions on the sale and disposition of excess animals.
"As the cost to care for un-adopted animals declines in future years, BLM will be better able to direct resources towards managing population growth on the range and improving the health and well-being of wild horses and burros, and the habitat on which they depend," it adds.
The proposal is certain to spark fierce opposition, not only from congressional Democrats but from wild horse advocacy groups that have routinely sued BLM to prevent wild horse gathers, claiming they are inhumane.
The $1 trillion omnibus spending package that Congress approved this month included a provision allowing the Interior secretary to "transfer excess wild horses or burros" BLM has removed from federal rangelands "to other Federal, State, and local government agencies for use as work animals" (E&E News PM, May 4).
It drew loud objections from advocates, including Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, who said she was "outraged" that the provision did not include stronger language against slaughtering horses for commercial purposes.
"The proposal to continue mass roundups of America's mustangs and kill innocent and healthy wild horses and burros unfortunate enough to be captured is wildly out of step with the wishes of the American people," Roy said today in an email to E&E News.
She said that polls show 80 percent of Americans — including 83 percent of Westerners — oppose horse slaughter.
"The Trump Administration promised to return government to the people, and the will of the people should govern how our iconic wild horses and our public lands are managed," she said in the email. "American can't be great again if our national symbols of freedom are brutally rounded up and killed."
But some say allowing BLM to sell or euthanize excess animals is the only reasonable alternative to address the growing herd sizes.
"We're glad to see the administration recommend the removal of the appropriations language that restricts the BLM from using all of the management options authorized under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act," said Keith Norris, director of government affairs and partnerships at the Wildlife Society and chairman of the National Horse and Burro Rangeland Management Coalition, which advocates for downsizing herds on public lands to sustainable levels.
"On-range populations of horses and burros already exceed ecologically sustainable objectives, and continue to grow at rates far surpassing adoption demand," Norris added. "Directly removing horses and burros from the range is the only way to effectively reduce their populations in a reasonable amount of time."
BLM is 'overwhelmed'
BLM currently spends about $50 million a year — two-thirds of the annual Wild Horse and Burro Program budget — to feed and care for the nearly 50,000 wild horses and burros removed from the range in offsite corrals and holding pens.
Former BLM Director Neil Kornze told a House Appropriations subcommittee last year that the agency is "overwhelmed" by the growing herds, which are causing environmental harm to vast swaths of rangeland (E&E Daily, March 4, 2016).
Kornze has estimated it will cost BLM $1 billion to feed and care for the captured animals over their lifetime.
Striking a balance between responsible care for the wild horses and rangeland protection has been a political balancing act for BLM. Ranchers and some environmentalists want the nonnative horses gone, but horse advocates say BLM should first curb livestock grazing.
The idea of BLM euthanizing horses that aren't adopted has been kicked around for years.
In June 2008, BLM announced it would consider euthanasia to control populations, though it later dropped that proposal.
And BLM's National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board last year recommended the agency take aggressive steps to sell the wild horses it has rounded up and is caring for in corrals — and euthanize those horses it cannot sell or adopt (Greenwire, Sept. 13, 2016).
"Those animals deemed unsuitable for sale," the advisory board's resolution states, "should then be destroyed in the most humane manner possible."
Kornze told a congressional panel a couple of days after the advisory panel resolution that the agency had no plans to follow the recommendation (E&E Daily, Sept. 15, 2016).
Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) told Kornze during that hearing that any proposal to sell or slaughter wild horses is "completely unacceptable," and Kornze agreed.
The latest proposal in the fiscal 2018 budget calls for BLM to essentially follow that recommendation.