Federal land managers are so desperate to reduce the staggering number of wild horses held in permanent captivity they will pay $1,000 for every horse you adopt, as long as you promise to provide a good home.
At the same time, the Bureau of Land Management is considering a controversial option that calls for the “unrestricted sale” of up to 110,000 horses and burros and euthanizing another 24,000 over the next decade, even though Congress frowns upon killing healthy equines or selling them for slaughter.
These were some of the ideas aired this week by the BLM’s wild horse advisory board, which convenes annually to craft recommendations for addressing the proliferation of wild horses on the West’s public lands, including in Utah.
Acting BLM Director Brian Steed told the panel, gathered at a Salt Lake City hotel, that the time for deciding on solutions is long past and congressional action will likely be needed to either provide more money to warehouse horses or authorize lethal measures.
“I would be absolutely foolish to say this would be easy, it will not. It will not be done next year. It will take some time,” Steed said. “We will have to make some hard decisions, but I am optimistic we can make those decisions and come up with solutions that are beneficial to viable horse populations and healthy range.”
The agency has been under fire by both sides in the horse debate. Everyone agrees the current course is not only expensive and unsustainable, but also cruel to the animals and hard on the land. Speaker after speaker said years of inaction has resulted in “an ecological train wreck.”
Yet consensus on solutions is nowhere in sight.
Modern horses and burros have been protected under federal law since 1971 because these animals, mostly descended from domestic horses turned loose by Spanish explorers and Anglo pioneers, are viewed as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”
While free-roaming horses have inspired a generation of animals lovers, they are in conflict with ranchers, who blame them for deteriorating range conditions.
For years BLM has relied on a policy of removing “excess” animals from the range, administering fertility control and and finding new homes for some, while putting the rest in permanent captivity.
Pasturing a horse costs about $5 a day, resulting in an annual $50 million bill to U.S. taxpayers that just gets bigger each year. Given these costs, a $1,000 adoption incentive is a bargain, according to Holle’ Waddell, who oversees the BLM’s off-range holding program. Adopters will get two payments in the program that will roll out this fall.
“One of $500 at the time of adoption, and $500 at the time of title date," Waddell said. “We like to encourage new individuals and organizations that are not currently purchasing to come out.”
Even without the incentive, adoptions have been increasing, reaching 4,600 last year. But that number is far less than the 11,000 scheduled for removal from the range this year.
Two years ago, the advisory board recommended the BLM “offer all suitable animals in long- and short-term holding deemed unadoptable for sale without limitation or humane euthanasia.” However, public opinion weighs heavily against killing healthy horses and Congress restricts slaughter sales, so the BLM has so far refrained.
In the time since, the on-range horse population has grown from 67,000 to 82,000, even as the BLM accelerated removals last year.
Ranchers who graze public lands want horse numbers reduced to what the law calls “appropriate management levels,” for the BLM’s various herd management areas, through roundups, lethal measures, and surgical sterilization of horses returned to the range.
Horse advocates want the BLM to abandon those management levels, which they say were arbitrarily set to 1971 population levels when federal horse-protection laws were enacted. They insist the BLM should order ranchers to reduce stocking levels and prioritize designated horse and burros areas for free-roaming equines.
The American Wild Horse Campaign delivered a petition signed by 250,000 people, demanding suspension of roundups, alleging they inhumanely traumatize horses and are not necessary.
“The sad truth is that these iconic American mustangs are being run off our public lands to make room [for] commercial livestock grazing that is subsidized by our tax dollars, even though it provides less than 2 percent of America’s beef supply,” the petition states.
Ranchers and rural county leaders oppose removing livestock, viewing it as an existential threat to their way of life and to their communities.
Ethan Lane, a prominent cattle-industry lobbyist, chided what he called an “activist” Congress for limiting the BLM’s options and insisted lethal measures should be made available.
“We cannot afford to pretend that half measures will get us where we need to be to maintain a healthy, viable population, while also allowing these rangelands to heal,” Lane, who heads the industry-affiliated Public Lands Council told the board Thursday. “We cannot allow one use to take over those resources and consume them to the point that nothing else is viable in that environment.”
Some board members warned that rangelands, degraded by wild horses, are approaching a “point of no return” and action can no longer be put off.
But advocates believe horse numbers can be controlled without killing or sterilizing them through the use of “fertility vaccines,” such as PZP, which harnesses mares’ immune system to thwart conception. The BLM’s use of PZP has dropped off, while it seeks to step up irreversible procedures, such as gelding and ovariectomy.
Board Chairman Fred Woehl, an Arkansas horse trainer, said PZP is difficult to administer to wild mares and the drug must be re-administered every couple years, arguing spaying is a better option.
Fellow board member Ginger Kathrens insisted BLM must fully embrace fertility control before it ever considers selling horses for slaughter or other lethal measures.
“I think this is a moral argument,” said Kathrens, founder of The Cloud Foundation. “Should our wild horses pay for the long-term inaction of the government when tools that were available were voluntarily not used.”