Government can’t find room for America’s wild horses

Wild horses, descended from the steeds of Spanish explorers, Native Americans, U.S. cavalry and ranch strays, are being offered for auction this weekend in Fort Worth, Texas, as part of a desperate effort by a federal government that can’t figure out what to do with them.

The Interior Department, in roundups that outraged wild horse advocates, has taken nearly 50,000 wild horses off their Western rangelands and paid private ranchers to put them in corrals and pastures, largely in Kansas and Oklahoma. More of America’s wild horses are now in holding facilities than roaming the wild.

The Bureau of Land Management says the roundups are needed because the swelling horse populations are too much for the wild range to sustain. Wild horse advocates counter that it’s really about favoring the interests of ranchers whose cattle and sheep graze upon the public lands.

Everyone agrees the situation can’t go on. The Bureau of Land Management is running out of space in the holding facilities and can’t find more. At the same time, the cost to taxpayers of the wild horse and burro program has nearly doubled in the past four years to $75 million, with more than half going to holding costs.

“There is no quick fix,” said BLM spokesman Tom Gorey. “The options are limited because we’re not going to put down healthy horses for which there is no adoption demand, even though the law authorizes it.”

The Bureau of Land Management could find homes for only about 2,600 wild horses and burros last year – less than half than in 2005. Arranging adoptions has become harder with the rough economy, as horses are considered a luxury item, Gorey said. There’s also a glut of cheap domesticated horses on the market since the closure of the nation’s last horse slaughterhouse six years ago, he said. Such domesticated horses tend to be more attractive to buyers than the Interior Department’s untrained wild horses, Gorey said.

The Bureau of Land Management pays the Mustang Heritage Foundation $3.75 million to train some of the wild horses and put them up for auction, a program that led to 868 of the adoptions last year. The foundation is in the midst of an adoption event at the John Justin Arena in Fort Worth, with 150 of the horses going for bid Friday and the same number Sunday. The average sale price is under $500.

Adoptions last year, though, represented just 5 percent of the wild horses in government-funded holding facilities. The Bureau of Land Management’s wild horse and burro advisory board said the number of horses in holding has ballooned to the point that it “threatens the health and welfare of the horses and the entire program.”

The board recommended removing the ovaries of mares in the field as a population control method. The BLM is considering it, but wild horse advocates call the procedure cruelly invasive and unnecessary.

The Bureau of Land Management should instead balance wild horses with the livestock, along with contraceptive vaccines for horses if necessary, said Suzanne Roy, campaign director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, based in Hillsborough, N.C.

“You have wild horses on about 11 percent of BLM land. But even on that small percent the BLM still allocates most of the forage resources to privately owned livestock,” Roy said in an interview this week. “You’ll have management areas with the annual equivalent of 1,000 cows and 100 horses, and when the horse population reaches 125 BLM says the horses are overpopulating. What we really have is an overpopulation of cattle and sheep on our public lands.”

A National Academy of Sciences study on the wild horse problem is coming out next month and will heavily influence the debate. Among the issues covered are population control methods and the controversial question of how the Bureau of Land Management decides how many horses a piece of land can sustain.

But the BLM’s Gorey said the study won’t give any easy answers. The fertility control efforts used so far have limited effectiveness, he said, and herds can double in size every four years. If the bureau can’t find places for the horses, that could mean limited roundups and “deterioration of the range, which is going to be unacceptable for most people that care about public lands,” Gorey said.