The number of wild horses and burros on federal rangelands across the West is at the highest level in more than three decades, according to the Bureau of Land Management, which warns it does not have the money or the space to capture and remove the growing herds.
The 67,027 wild horses and burros as of March 1 represent a 15 percent increase over the 58,150 animals counted last year. That number, the biggest since at least 1984, is also approaching three times the 26,715 horses and burros that BLM says federal rangelands can sustain.
BLM is required by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 to remove the excess 40,312 wild horses and burros in order to protect native wildlife and other rangeland resources. But the agency is already holding more than 46,000 horses and burros in off-range corrals and pastures, and it does not have the resources to round up and hold all the excess animals.
If it cannot adopt out or transfer to other government agencies a significant number of the wild horses and burros in holding, BLM warns, it will cost the agency more than $1 billion to feed and care for the horses during their lifetime.
"Over the last seven years we have doubled the amount of funding used for managing our nation’s wild horses and burros," BLM Director Neil Kornze said in a statement. "Despite this, major shifts in the adoption market and the absence of a long-term fertility control drug have driven population levels higher."
Reaction to the latest wild horse and burro numbers was mixed. But rangeland health and wild horse advocates both agreed BLM’s approach to managing herds is not working.
"Sixty-seven thousand is really not a surprising number, but it is a bit of a frightening number in the sense of what is happening to our rangelands. And they really don’t have many options to deal with that right now," 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.
Instead, Norris said, BLM must use a combination of management tools, including increased roundups and adoption, permanent sterilization, and fertility vaccines. And Congress could help the agency with more money and legislative reforms that would allow for greater numbers of horses and burros to be adopted, he said.
"If we continue on the same track, we can expect an 18 percent population growth next year, or another 12,000 horses on the range," said Norris, who accurately predicted during testimony last year before House appropriators that populations would grow to 67,000 by 2016 without immediate action.
But wild horse advocacy groups questioned the accuracy of the latest numbers, as well as BLM’s position that there are too many wild horses and burros on federal rangelands.
"The BLM’s claims of wild horse overpopulation are grossly exaggerated and designed to dupe the public into accepting the continued costly, cruel and unsustainable roundup, removal and stockpiling program," said Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. "We don’t have an excess wild horse problem, we have a federal mismanagement problem."
But BLM maintains that it is scrambling to deal with growing herd sizes, and that the large number of wild horses and burros are damaging rangelands across the West and eating away at the agency’s overall budget. With very few natural predators, BLM says, herds can double in size about every four years.
The latest population data come as Western state leaders are becoming increasingly concerned about the growing herds and BLM’s ability to control them.
In Nevada, which is home to 34,531 wild horses and burros — nearly three times what BLM says federal rangelands in the Silver State can support — Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) last month threatened to sue the agency if it does not take action to round up and reduce herd sizes in his state.
BLM asked Congress in its fiscal 2017 budget request to approve legislation that would allow the agency to transfer horses immediately to federal, state and local agencies that request them, such as the U.S. Border Patrol. It has also requested the establishment of a congressionally chartered foundation that would help fund and support efforts to adopt horses that have been rounded up.
Kornze told a House Appropriations subcommittee in March that the agency is "overwhelmed" by the growing herds, which are causing environmental harm to vast swaths of rangeland. Among other things, he asked Congress to help by authorizing tax credits to "incentivize adoption" of wild horses (E&E Daily, March 4).
It can cost about $50,000 per animal to feed and care for wild horses sitting in corrals and pastures over their lifetime, BLM says.
Meanwhile, the agency is working on numerous research projects aimed at finding modern and effective ways to slow the population growth rate and reduce the need to remove animals from public lands. The projects, which BLM has estimated will cost $11 million over five years, are in response to a 2013 recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences to develop new or improve existing population-growth suppression methods for wild horses.
"A number of program reforms are underway," Kornze said in his statement, "but assistance is needed from our local, state, and federal partners."
The problem shows few signs of slowing down.
Animal numbers held relatively steady from 2010 to 2012 but grew by 8 percent in 2013, 18 percent in 2014 and another 18 percent in 2015 (Greenwire, July 28, 2015).
There are now 55,311 wild horses and 11,716 burros on roughly 27 million acres of federal rangeland in 10 Western states, according to BLM data.
The number of wild horses and burros in each of the 10 states exceeds the agency’s appropriate management level (AML) — the number of animals BLM calculates can thrive in balance with other public land resources and uses.
Between 2009 and 2011, BLM removed an average of about 8,500 horses and burros annually. But since fiscal 2012, BLM has rounded up an average of about 4,500 a year, according to BLM data. It plans to round up about 3,500 horses and burros this year.
Wild horse advocacy groups blasted BLM’s focus on rounding up the animals and trying to adopt them out.
"They are not even adopting out half of the several thousand horses they remove each year. And on top of that, they have 47,000 horses in holding," Roy said. "It’s not even credible for BLM to maintain that adoption is a solution."
Instead, BLM should advance the use of fertility control vaccines that keep populations in check but allow horses and burros to remain free on the range, said Ginger Kathrens, executive director of the Cloud Foundation, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based wild horse advocacy group.
BLM’s most successful fertility control technique so far has been the use of porcine zona pellucida, or PZP, which renders mares infertile for roughly a year. The drug, which was developed in the 1990s, must be administered annually, typically by dart guns, but is also available in a longer-lasting pellet form administered to mares that are gathered from the range that lasts for nearly two years.
BLM has used PZP to control the growth of some herds. But horses in other herds have proved too skittish or are dispersed over too large of an area for PZP to be administered effectively, the agency says.
Kathrens said she isn’t buying those excuses.
"They say it’s too hard, that the acreages are too big, the weather’s too bad. But there are herds in the West that are totally managed using a dart. It’s totally doable," she said.
It simply requires BLM staff to get out in the field and do it, she said.
"They spend so much time sitting behind a desk, and there are so few in the Wild Horse and Burro Program who understand the horses, who are out on the range and know," she said. "This is not brain surgery, but it does require field work."