As directed by Congress under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, the BLM protects, manages, and controls wild horses and burros that roam Western public rangelands. The Bureau manages these iconic animals as part of its overall multiple-use mission across 253 million acres of public lands.
When Congress passed the 1971 law, it found that wild horses and burros – those Living Legends of Western history – were “fast disappearing from the American scene” because of their lack of legal protection. Now, nearly 40 years after that landmark law was enacted, these special animals are experiencing robust population growth under Federal protection. In fact, wild horse and burro herds, which have virtually no natural predators, grow at a rate of about 20 percent a year, which means herds can double in size every four years.
Impacts from Overpopulated Herds
Because of this rapid growth, the BLM must remove thousands of wild horses and burros from the range each year to protect public rangelands from the environmental impacts of herd overpopulation. Currently, the Western rangeland free-roaming population of 37,000 horses and burros exceeds by more than 10,000 the number that the BLM has determined can exist in balance with other public rangeland resources and uses. The ecosystems of public rangelands, which provide habitat for wildlife, are simply not able to withstand the impacts resulting from overpopulated herds.
As former Director of the BLM's State Office in Nevada, where most wild horses live, I know first-hand the need to protect the land on which these treasured animals roam. Without healthy rangelands, wild horses and burros cannot thrive. Moreover, they cannot even survive when range conditions – which are affected by drought, wildfire, and climate change – deteriorate beyond a certain point.
The need to gather and remove horses and burros from the range, I would note, is fully recognized by Congress in the 1971 law. Section 1333 of the law mandates that once the Secretary of the Interior “determines...on the basis of all information currently available to him, that an overpopulation exists on a given area of the public lands and that action is necessary to remove excess animals, he shall immediately remove excess animals from the range so as to achieve appropriate management levels.”
GAO Finding: “Critical Crossroads”
When excess horses and burros are removed, the BLM feeds and cares for these animals in short-term corrals and long-term pastures while trying to place as many as possible into good private care through adoptions or sales. Since 1971, the Bureau has adopted out nearly 225,000 wild horses and burros.
While the BLM is working hard to boost adoptions, the public’s demand for adoptable wild horses has declined sharply in recent years, leaving more than 34,000 horses and burros in corrals and pastures that must be kept operating at a cost of $29 million a year – a figure that is rising and which accounted for 70 percent of the wild horse and burro funding approved by Congress in Fiscal Year 2009. (Animals in holding, keep in mind, retain their “wild” status and remain under the protection of the BLM, which does not sell or send any horses or burros to slaughter.)
So the BLM finds itself in the predicament of needing to gather overpopulated herds from the Western range each year while its holding costs keep rising – with no end in sight. Recognizing this unsustainable situation, the Government Accountability Office, in a report issued in October 2008, found the Bureau to be at a “critical crossroads” because of spiraling off-the-range holding costs and its limited management options concerning unadopted horses.
Salazar Wild Horse Initiative
In response, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and I announced on October 7, 2009, a new and sustainable way forward for managing our nation’s wild horse horses and burros.
At that announcement, we recommended the establishment of new wild horse preserves across the nation, particularly on the productive grasslands of the Midwest and East, that could be a home for thousands of horses that the BLM currently holds in short-term corrals and long-term pastures, the latter of which are currently filled to capacity.
We also recommended managing the new preserves either directly by the BLM or through cooperative agreements between the BLM and private non-profit organizations or other partners to reduce the Bureau’s off-the-range holding costs.
We recommended showcasing certain herds on public lands in the West that warrant distinct recognition with Secretarial or possibly congressional designations.
And we recommended applying new strategies aimed at balancing wild horse and burro population growth rates with public adoption demand to control holding costs. This effort would involve slowing population growth rates of wild horses on Western public rangelands through the aggressive use of fertility control, the active management of sex ratios on the range, and perhaps even the introduction of non-reproducing herds in some of the BLM’s existing Herd Management Areas in 10 Western states.
In the view of the Department of the Interior and the BLM, this set of proposals is the best and most viable approach to protecting and managing America’s iconic wild horses and burros, and I hope you will look over the materials on this Website relating to the Secretary’s initiative. If approved and funded by Congress, the Secretary’s initiative, we are convinced, will be good for wild horses and burros, good for public rangelands, and good for the American taxpayer.
BLM photo by Kurt Golgart