WASHINGTON – Wild horses are called “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West,” but some observers say the cost of managing them is as out-of-control as the animals themselves.
The federal budget for tending to wild horses and burros has more than doubled during the Obama administration, rising to $75.7 million last year from $36.2 million in 2008. The percentage increase in three years is greater than the entire eight years of the Bush administration.
The rise in spending has generated complaints and fears about the program’s solvency. In 2008, the General Accountability Office warned that “(i)f not controlled, off-the-range holding costs will continue to overwhelm the program.” Then, the cost was $9.1 million. Now it is $13.9 million.
“I am very concerned about us spending $35 million a year to feed horses … We have to protect taxpayers,” said Callie Hendickson, a Grand Junction, Colo. businesswoman who is a member of the Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, which makes policy recommendations to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Some animal-rights activists agree the federal government’s spending on wild horses is excessive, but blame the overspending on federal mismanagement.
Dr. Elliot Katz is founder and president of In Defense of Animals, an international animal protection organization that has sued the BLM. He said the agency’s policy of using helicopters to round up the animals is “a boondoggle … There’s absolutely no necessity to continue these roundups inhumanely or any roundups at all. It’s a total waste of money.”
The BLM says it manages 38,497 wild horses and burros on federal lands in 10 Western states, including 967 in Colorado. While animal-welfare groups say the total is overstated, they do not dispute that many more live on federally-subsidized private ranges. The BLM says more than 47,000 wild horses and burros live off the range, most in Kansas and Oklahoma.
BLM officials, taxpayer advocates, and ranchers say that the number of federally-subsidized wild horses and burros is excessive. According to the BLM, the agency’s tending to more than 10,000 wild horses and burros on federal lands than is unsustainable.
For ranchers, the wild horses pose an economic threat, grazing on land better suited to cattle and sheep. “They’re kind of a nuisance animal,” said Gary Moyer, president of the Colorado Association of Conservation Districts, which represents many of the state’s large and small ranchers.
For government officials and taxpayer advocates, the wild horses threaten to overpopulate 29-to-33 million acres of Western lands even more. Because wild horses have few natural predators, government officials say their herd sizes can double within four years.
By most accounts, the problem is one of supply and demand: the federal government has too many wild horses and burros and not enough people who wish to adopt them. As the GAO noted in its report, 36 percent few wild horses were adopted in 2007 than compared to the average adoption rates in the 1990s.
For Hendrickson, bureaucratic and economic factors have discouraged the public from adopting a wild horse or burro. “Three years ago, a bale of hay was $4. Now if you can get a bale for $8, that’s a bargain,” she said. “The government does a phenomenal job doing what they do with adoptions, but they need to reduce the paperwork. People have told me they won’t do it, because the forms take too long.”
Hendrickson said she is a tentative supporter of a new BLM policy designed to raise federal revenue for the wild horses program. Ranchers would be paid for caring for some horses on an “eco-sanctuary” in exchange for agreeing to raise money for education and tourism-related activities.
The BLM has taken a step in that direction. It announced in late April that it would conduct a two-year environmental review of a proposed “eco-sanctuary” for 900 wild horses in northeastern Nevada.
Yet the BLM’s own spokesman acknowledges that creating such sanctuaries for wild horses would not put a sizable dent in the agency’s budget. “It’s not a lot of horses, so we’re not deluding ourselves. It’s just part of the overall strategy,” Gorey said.
In addition to a supply-and-demand problem, the federal government has a reduction problem: getting rid of the wild animals is difficult.
The federal government has not destroyed any healthy wild horses since early 1982. And it is unlikely to do so, government officials say. While a federal 1971 law permits the destruction of healthy horses under certain conditions, BLM spokesman Gorey said the American public and Congress “don’t want to put down horses.” (The federal government does euthanize sick, injured, or deformed wild horses, however; it euthanized 3,000 from 2005 to 2007).
With few adoptions and a lack of public appetite for killing horses, the Bureau of Land Management contracts with private ranchers to manage older horses in long-term corrals and facilities.
Its roundups of wild horses have generated complaints from animal-welfare groups for injuring, maiming, and even killing the animals, as has its selling of wild horses to private buyers because the animals can be killed after being sold. “It’s amazing the American people permit this to happen,” Katz said.
Yet government officials say their options are limited. The public doesn’t want them to kill horses, while wealthy animal-rights organizations don’t want them to transported out of their rangelands in the West. As a result, costs for the program rise. “The task facing us is formidable. We have no illusions,” Gorey said. “It’s never been easy, and it’s not going to be easy in the future.”