American West running out of room for wild horses, officials weigh options


Kelly David Burke / Published March 26, 2013 /

images-10There are 10,000 more horses and burros in the wild than their habitat can support, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

But, the agency says, there will soon be little they can do about it.

The overpopulation problem is now putting a big strain on the agency as it tries to figure out how to keep the spiraling population from harming the ecosystem.

The current conundrum can be traced in part to 1971. At the time, Congress passed the Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which tasked BLM with preserving the wild animals in the 10 western states where they roamed. As with any grazing animal, though, the absence of predators caused the population to boom. After their numbers doubled in five years, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act which made BLM responsible for keeping wild horse and burro populations in check.

Fran Ackley, who runs BLM’s Wild Horse Program holding facility in Canon City, Colo., said that since there are no predators, federal officials “act as predators in that we remove horses (from the wild).” This, he said, “kind of serves as a similar act in controlling the population.”

Rounded up animals are placed in long- and short-term holding facilities and put up for adoption. Adoptions, however, especially in the recent recession, have been far lower than the number of horses taken off the range. The result is that there are now some 50,000 “wild” horses and burros in BLM holding facilities around the West.

That’s compared with roughly 37,000 currently in the wild, a number BLM says is 10,000 more than it should be. The agency says room in its holding facilities will reach capacity this year.

“The growth rate ‘in the wild’ is about 20 percent,” Ackley explained. “So that means we’re going to have another 7,400 horses this summer after foaling season. And right now it looks like we cannot remove all of them, maybe between 5,000 and 6,000 animals.”

Each coming year, the population in the wild will increase, and if something isn’t done, the BLM will be unable to remove any of them, according to Ackley. “If we don’t manage them they’re going to eat themselves out of house and home and destroy the habitat that supports — not only them but, you know, endangered species, other plant and animal species and wildlife.”

Currently the Wild Horse and Bureau Program spends about $50 million a year just to feed the animals held in captivity. That’s around 70 percent of its annual budget, and horses in captivity live up to 25 years. When it comes to other grazing animals like deer, elk and bison, hunting acts as a substitute for natural predation.

Hunting horses, though, is prohibited.

And while horse meat is consumed by humans in much of the world, selling any of the horses to slaughter houses is a public relations nightmare the Bureau is determined to avoid.

“We’d like to see reproduction targeted as part of a solution,” said Karen Herman, owner and operator of the Sky Mountain Wild Horse Sanctuary near Santa Fe, N.M. She said it’s obvious to everyone the current system for managing wild horses is broken. “I think we need to be much more creative and innovative, and I think PZP is a science-based solution that’s also ecologically and economically sound.”

PZP, porcine zona pellucida, is a birth control drug that can last up to two years. Longer lasting fertility drugs are being developed. Herman has been involved in PZP trials in the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico where mares are darted in the wild to inject the drug.

“It limits their reproduction so they can stay free, they can be wild.” Herman said. “And yet their numbers aren’t exceeding the capacity that the land can hold. There’s 20 years of data that shows it’s totally safe, it’s 90 percent effective (and) it doesn’t change their family behavior, their social behavior.”

Many wild horse advocates oppose fertility control but Herman says the alternatives of roundup or overpopulation are far less attractive. “There’s nothing humane about starvation — it’s a long, cruel, slow death. I respect other peoples’ right to their perspective. Mine is that we have the means to help horses stay healthy and free. Why not use it?”

Ackley also feels that PZP is promising and points out that the BLM is also conducting trials. He agrees, though, that fertility control is only part of the solution.

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AUTHOR: Jerry Finch
  • Sue

    Guess we should euthanize some people!

    March 27, 2013
  • Ziggy Pope

    Wild horses do have natural predators!!! But the welfare ranchers, and the ironically named “sportmans'” club have decimated those populations as well!!!

    Although only .02% of cattle are taken by wolves, these cattlemen scream and holler “wolf” and hense over 1200 of them have been killed in 5 months.

    These nefarious groups hold “coyote killing contests” and kill these “predators” as a “joke”. They literally pile them up, and photograph them for bragging rights.

    So the continual lying that the BLM mouths on behalf of their puppet masters, is unethical and they all deserve to lose their jobs.

    March 27, 2013
  • This article is BS!

    March 27, 2013
  • Mustang man

    Well at least the population growth has shrunk from 25% a year to 20% a year LOL, I still wonder though, how is it that they reproduce at 20% a year, the BLM takes a minimum of 60% off the range in round ups and the next year there is just as many horses again? That 37,000 number has not changed in over 20 years some how. Horses are the only mammals as well that the males can give birth did you know that, The BLM says its so with their numbers.

    March 27, 2013
  • Debbie Tracy

    Yeah I agree B— S–T as alway’s hope they enjoy their job!!!!!!!!!!!!

    That seems to be the norm our gov. lies!!! with not telling the whole truth as it is…..


    March 27, 2013
  • Margaret

    Better go back and ask Ginger Kathrens about the Pryors. This guy bozoed! The Pryors had about 8 mountain lions that were doing a perfect job at no growth rate for the Pryors.

    Enter man. Because cattle ranchers further down the mountain (and no one ever said if the mountain lions ACTUALLY killed any of their cattle)complained, BLM went into hyperdrive. Killed off all the mountain lions, which in turn gave them the right to use PZP for birth control.

    The Pryors are unique in that this is HORSE RANGE. Legally speaking this range is managed exclusively for the horses. Cattlemen in the past haven’t wanted it because the mountains are so steep. But it isn’t managed that way.

    March 27, 2013
  • Georgia Halloran

    The BLM LIES!! Please do some research with some of the wild horse supporters–you will find out the REAL story. Greed and money killing our horses.

    March 27, 2013
  • Susan Durrenberger

    To say that the American West is running out of room for wild horses is a bald faced lie. The horses live on only 11% of all the public lands. Cattle & sheep live on ALL the rest. Ranchers graze cattle & sheep on PUBLIC lands for a pittance. Therin lies the truth – they want the land for their cattle. In 1971, Congress made it a law that wild horses and burros were to live on public lands and never be removed or hurt in any way. All the roundups, slaughter and cruelty is ILLEGAL.

    WhenWhenWhen When will the government stop all this nonsense and let our wild horses live as

    March 27, 2013
  • How did they all survive and coexist 200 years ago with millions of buffalo and not starve? We are killing wolves and coyotes at alarming rates and those are horse predators along with bear and mountain lion. Let nature take its course and stop playing god. Animals survived for how many years before we stepped in and ruined it all?

    March 27, 2013
  • Dorothy Hudecek

    Start taking off the welfare cattle, that is bringing us no money and forcing us to put horse in long term holding pens and paying for them. Wild horses are indiginous animals, cattle and sheep are not So why are they on the grazing areas. Horses have had 2 million acres of land taken away from them. Put them back.

    March 27, 2013
  • Ladis Niedzwiecki

    Because BLM they weren’t doing their job……if they spent taxpayers money on herd control, instead of now spending money on choppers and holding pens they would of had fewer horses on the range….BLM lined their pockets with taxpayers money and these horses got nothing but a death sentence……where’s the justice for these animals….

    March 27, 2013
  • sherriey

    hmmmm…lets see….did i read right that they will starve to death and ruin the habitat of other species…
    (quote)“If we don’t manage them they’re going to eat themselves out of house and home and destroy the habitat that supports — not only them but, you know, endangered species, other plant and animal species and wildlife.”

    soooo….when did they put cattle on the endangered species list? how did elk, pronghorn, etc…that those canned hunts provide to rich hunters….get onto such a list too of possibly being starved out of existence by these Mustangs that don’t even eat the same forage? how did all these animals coexist before the greedy ranchers moved in?

    does the gov/BLM really think that we are that stupid?
    quit insulting our intelligence! only the uneducated (as far as to animal coexistence/behavior in a scenario like this) populace would fall for the BS in that publication! so sad that brainwashing is still alive and well!!!!!!

    March 27, 2013
  • Kathy

    Obviously NOTHING is going to change with Sally Jewel at the helm… if BLM is still allowing garbage like this to be distributed as a press release.

    March 27, 2013
  • chevon

    Ok wat i pulled from this article is that these wild horses have no predators and are over populating and that instead of keeping the same routine of rounding them up and tryin to find homes for them they want to put the mares on birthcontrol they put us on it why can’t they b on it to if it means a great future for our wild mustangs

    March 27, 2013
  • Linda Jackson

    I have been forwarding these postings to individuals and organizations that could be helpful in combating this horse killing craze. Locally the Poarch Creek Indians (Atmore AL) have a considerable amount of property, I have sent them a request for assistance. My son is contacting the Indian organizations in Oregon. If you search for your local tribes you may find a sympathetic ear…after all they were all but exterminated.

    March 28, 2013