Captive wild horses economically unsustainable

Sep 9, 2013

—New study suggests economy, not emotion, needs to guide decisions.

A recent study published in Science Magazine concludes what ranchers and horse lovers have known for years; there are too many wild horses in the West. And what’s more, they are expensive… too expensive.

The report—“A Critical Crossroad for BLM’s Wild Horse Program”—concludes, among other things, that the growth of the wild horse population on public lands and especially in publicly-funded holding facilities will quickly become fiscally unsustainable to manage, even more so than they are already.

BLM reports put the population of “wild” horses—some insist on calling them “feral horses”—living on public lands at about 33,000, well above estimated aggregate maximum goal of 23,622 head. Because of this overpopulation, and the horses’ impressively prolific nature, BLM has resorted to gathering and storing many of the excess horses in publicly-funded short- and long-term holding facilities. The current estimate of gathered horses in government pens is 45,000 head.

Robert Garrott of Montana State University and Madan Oli of the University of Florida, authors of the report, acknowledge that this confusing situation whereby more “wild” horses are captive than otherwise stems from the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WHB) which tasks BLM with monitoring and managing the horse population.

“However, tens of thousands of horses are not living the life of ‘wild mustangs’ as Congress intended in passing the Wild Free- Roaming Horses and Burros Act; instead, they have reverted back to the status of captive, domestic livestock, and the cost of the captive horse program is increasingly unsustainable,” says Garrott and Oli in their report.

The unsustainable cost of the captive wild horses is no small matter. The pair point out that from 2000 to 2012, the WHB budget almost quadrupled, from $19.8 million to $74.9 million. Of the 2012 WHB budget, 60 percent of it went just to maintain the captive wild horse population.

The report points to several factors for this continuing and burgeoning captive population. The WHB act requires BLM to place removed horses into care until such time as they can be adopted. But the supply of available horses for adoption exceeds the demand to adopt them. This has been especially exacerbated in the past years of drought. On top of all of these issues, the report points to outside pressures making a bad situation worse.

“[B]ecause of pressure from horse advocates, administrative directives and Congressional appropriation bills prohibit killing healthy horses, BLM is left with large numbers of captive horses that must be maintained indefinitely.”

The projected cost of this is large, running into the billions according to Garrott and Oli.

“Expenses would be about $1.1 billion between 2013 and 2030, and annual costs thereafter would be $67 million,” they said, assuming the average lifespan of horses, the number of horses currently in longterm holding facilities, the number of horses annually gathered and transferred into long-time holding facilities, and the cost of maintaining a horse per year adjusted for an estimated 2 percent annual inflation. See the chart at right.

They point out that this is not sustainable and, while some may support such expenditures, the BLM cannot rely on “business as usual” regarding the horses.

Population control

The population of the captive wild horses continues to grow as continued gathers and gathered pregnant mares add new mouths to the rosters. This makes the wild population’s growth a key issue. According to varying sources, the horse population on public land can double in four years or triple in six to eight years.

The report addresses the attempts to reduce the growth of the natural population which rests on the paired strategies of gathers and contraceptive vaccines for the mares. However, there are a myriad of issues with current birth control efforts.

The report points out delivery systems of the two currently accepted mare contraceptive vaccines leave something to be desired.

“Current contraceptive vaccines are most effective when hand-injected, and remote delivery of vaccines via dart is impractical for most free-ranging horse populations. Accordingly, vaccine delivery will require continuing, and perhaps increasing, the frequency of horse captures.”

Garrott and Oli further point out that, due to “funding constraints and lack of additional capacity for maintaining captive animals,” the BLM has already announced it will “substantially reduce scheduled removal of horses from public lands.”

They do however point out that the uncertainties and difficulties with the vaccines should not preclude their use. Considering the very few options available to the BLM in their management of the horses, even faulty options cannot be refused.

Forage complaints

One issue heard often in the wild horse debate is that their overpopulation on public lands leads to extreme suffering and starvation. The droughts and fires of recent years has made this an even greater issue, with BLM trucking out water and hay to severely affected horse herds to supplement decimated stock ponds and nonexistent forage.

Garrott and Oli compare the potential plight of the symbol of the West to that of feral horses in Australia.

“The current situation in Australia provides a sobering view of what might be in store for western rangelands in the United States if the current management dilemma is not resolved. The wild horse population in Australia is estimated to exceed 400,000 animals, and severe drought conditions in central Australia have reportedly forced government agencies to propose shooting 10,000 horses from helicopters to reduce animal suffering and environmental degradation.

One can only hope that there is the political will to change current policy and place BLM’s WHB Program on a more sustainable trajectory.”

One group, however, claims there is a flaw in reasoning; namely, that the forage shortage is artificial.

The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign—of which the Humane Society of the U.S. is a member— claimed in an April report that the allocation of forage space between wild horses and publicly-grazed livestock is inequitable.

After reportedly evaluating BLM data on forage allocations in 50 Herd Management Areas (HMAs) where gathers were conducted from 2010-2012, the group found 82.5 percent of forage in HMAs was allocated to livestock while 17.5 percent was allocated to the horses. The group claims their surveyed area represents 30 percent of the total HMAs in the country.

“This inequitable distribution of resources is the basis on which the BLM has set ‘Appropriate’ Management Levels (AMLs) for wild horses. AMLs do not reflect the carrying capacity of the land for wild horses. Rather, the AMLs reflect the number of wild horses that the BLM has decided to allow after giving away the majority of forage resources to private livestock,” said the group.

“This survey puts BLM’s claims of wild horse overpopulation in perspective.

When the wild horse population exceeds the artificially-low AMLs, the BLM claims the horses are overpopulating. In reality, the wild horse population has only exceeded the artificial management levels established by BLM based on the giveaway of the vast majority of forage to livestock. In virtually every HMA, the number of livestock per HMA far exceeds the number of wild horses.”

When asked about this perspective, J.J. Goicoechea—current president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, rancher and DVM—said it was unfair to compare the two issues as “apples to apples.” He pointed out that the Taylor Grazing Act far preceded the WHB act, and granted grazing rights which have been held far longer than the BLM mandate to protect the wild horses.

“We have to protect valid, existing rights,” he said.

He also commented hotly that reducing the issue to a “horses versus cows” argument is not beneficial to anyone, not to mention insulting.

“I take exception to public lands ranchers being called ‘welfare ranchers.’ We give so much back to these lands.”

Goicoechea also said the suffering of the overpopulated horses on the range is very real.

“I see it first hand, and it’s heartbreaking,” he said, explaining that he sees the horses both as a rancher and as a local vet occasionally brought in to check the horses when gathers are conducted in his area.

“When you see a herd of horses eat each other’s manes and tails and all the bark off every tree they can find and eat every scrape of sage brush under the snow and still die of starvation; you never forget that.”

Goicoechea spoke passionately about the need to do something, not only about, but for the horses. He called the current system of gathering excess horses and then holding them indefinitely at the expense of taxpayers “hospice” and that it is not the answer.

“We have got to do something and the time is now.”

Ultimately, Goicoechea said the situation can be improved for all involved— the horses, livestock, wildlife, and the land—so long as the BLM-set AML is kept in mind.

“Everyone says we all need to get along. And we can! We just need to get to that level and we’ll be fine.”

The authors of the report had a less optimistic view of the future, effectively putting the ball in the court of the people, calling this a “critical juncture” for the BLM and the horses it manages.

“It is up to society to decide how they want their government to manage wild horses, how many wild horses should be accommodated on public lands, what should be done with excess horses, and how much they are willing to spend.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor