Some of you have bowhunted in the prairies of Nevada, or western Wyoming, or elsewhere and seen wild horses come to a water hole. I know I’ve seen them while antelope hunting in Area 95 in western Wyoming. In fact, over a period of ten years I saw a number of wild horses there. No question, for someone not used to the sight, seeing wild horses up close and personal is a thrill. Neat animals.
But did you know there are now more than 38,000 of them on your lands in the West? Yes, ‘your’ land. Public lands. The idea that wild horses are roaming our western states sounds romantic. The charisma of the old ‘wild west‘ is still alive through these wild horses. But before you cheer and holler for these wild horses, note that there are around 12,000 more wild horses than the habitat can support. We have more wild horses, and less wild habitats (the horses and other wild critters, and some domestic ones, are eating up habitat all the time) every year. In fact, the growth leads to 20 percent more wild horses and burros every year.
When we have too many deer or elk for the habitat, we take more animals via hunting. We can’t do that with wild horses. We‘re not allowed to kill wild horses. Killing some wild horses is probably the right approach in this situation but instead we do expensive things that just are not working. This then is a disaster for all animals on western public land. Every year the Bureau of Land Management biologists assess the numbers and capture as many of the excess as possible. The question then becomes, what do we do with these captured animals?
For years these wild horses and burros were given up for adoption to whomever wanted them. Go to the states where they are held in pens, pick out those deemed adoptable, pay a fee, and haul them home. This practice started in 1976 and since that time more than 140,000 horses and burros have found homes with citizens. Problem was, and is, that we never found enough homes, so the captive herds continued to grow. Today, the adoption program is in real trouble. Free or not, there just aren’t enough takers. From 2005 through 2009, adoption has dropped by a whopping 40 percent. This means that you, the tax payers, are paying to keep and feed 37,800 wild horses and burrows in short-term corrals and private Midwest pastures. Yep. You are paying millions every year to hold these horses and with no option to viably reduce numbers in the wild, the excess held captive will grow and grow. It is a dilemma.
Right now pro-horse activists are trying to stop all roundups in the wild, stating that we should just leave the populations to grow. Very bad idea. Remember, elk, deer, and antelope are native wild animals feeding there. Horses are not native there. I know, there are also cattle grazing on public lands and they aren’t native there either. However, the numbers of cattle on public lands are decreasing and controlled. Trying to eliminate cattle leases on public land is a political nightmare. Even further, a moratorium on capture of horses goes against Section 1333 of the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act that protected those animals.
Mass adoptions were allowed in 1984, to those who would take 100 or more horses. But when it was found that most of these animals were killed for dog food, such adoptions were stopped.
No question, the Bureau of Land Management has made lots of mistakes, and horse lovers have been quick to pounce on them. However, this doesn’t mean the problem goes away. We’ve got rare and endangered animals and plants that are affected by the growing population of horses. Horses eat more than cattle and six times more grass than deer. Big horn sheep and wild horses are found in the same range in parts of the West. Competition for forage is a problem there.
So, what is the solution? The Obama administration is assessing ways to improve horse management and keep populations sustainable. It is a very complex issue that I can’t begin to cover here. Some say capture the excess and hold them during droughts then release them back to the wild. There are tons of problems with that idea, not the least of which is cost. Others say use contraception to control herds. Lots of problems there to, not the least of which is cost.
Most people, including me, believe that it’s rather neat to have wild horses and burros roaming the West. But when is enough enough, and how do you sustain the numbers at a level necessary for long term health of the horses, other wild critters, and the land? We can talk around this problem for years, but most biologists understand that horse management (permanent removal) is part of the solution. Proposals today include contraception, sanctuaries, more adoptions, etc. No question, the solution has to include a myriad of approaches. But if killing some horses is not a part of the solution then we will not solve this dilemma. If we do kill some horses, some of the public will resist mightily and that option probably will not happen. Meanwhile the cost to capture and keep more and more horses in corrals will soar, and the horses will continue to wait for a solution that is not forthcoming.