WASHINGTON — 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.