WASHINGTON, April 20, 2016- Too many wild horses for too many years have caused considerable ecosystem degradation on the Western range – shrinking available acreage for livestock grazing, complicating wildlife management and costing taxpayers a small fortune, say advocates in support of rangeland health.

It’s not just ranchers and wildlife that struggle to live alongside wild horses, the advocates say. Wild horses, too, are suffering, because they don’t have enough food or water to keep them healthy at their present numbers, and there are no natural predators to cull the herds. Just last year in southern Nevada’s Cold Creek Herd Management Area, the federal government had to conduct an emergency roundup to save horses from dying of starvation.

The government estimates there are more than 58,000 wild horses and burros living on Bureau of Land Management acreage spanning 10 Western states, when by law there should be fewer than half of that number.

The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 not only authorized BLM to remove excess wild horses and burros from the West, it mandated that it do so when the on-range population of these animals exceeds what’s called the Appropriate Management Level. The AML is determined each year by the BLM after it has inventoried the number of wild horses on the range and has decided, based on the best available science, how many can remain on the range without negatively affecting the health or productivity of public lands. 

This year, the AML was 26,715 horses and burros – a number similar to years past. Another familiar figure – 20 percent – the rate at which wild horse and burro populations have been growing, year in and year out. 

BLM gathers around 3,000 wild horses every year and houses them in paddocks on the range – providing them with hay and water, and running up an annual bill in excess of $50 million. Right now, some 47,000 wild horses are housed in these pens because only a fraction are adopted out each year (2,631 in 2015) or sold (267) to buyers that agree to not sell the animals for slaughter. 

“Frankly, they’re choosing horses over their ranges,” Utah rancher Mark Wintch said of BLM’s Washington office. “If you have an act on the books, the act should be followed.”

Wintch, whose family has been running cattle on about 200,000 acres of mostly BLM land for over 100 years, told Agri-Pulse that he’s had to reduce the size of his herd to minimize the impact on the rangeland he shares with wild horses. 

“There’s quite a bit of competition in my area,” he said, where about 250 to 300 wild horses roam. One pasture in particular, which historically had been able to support at least 300 head of cattle from June through September, now can hardly support any cattle due to overgrazing by the horses, he said.

Local ranchers and BLM managers generally agree with Wintch – they “don’t want to see (the horses) all gone” but they are advocating that the horse population be held to the AML, he said.

“The West is in need of serious help. And removing livestock is not the answer,” he argued. There has to be an ecosystem approach to range health, Wintch continued, one that finds the right balance between livestock, horses and other wildlife, so that the range can be more productive and serve multiple uses. 

That’s also the opinion of Keith Norris, the director of government affairs and partnerships for The Wildlife Society and the chair of the National Horse & Burro Rangeland Management Coalition, which includes a range of agricultural and natural resources interests, including the American Farm Bureau Federation. 

“We need to be gathering closer to 10,000 (wild horses) a year (or) 13,000 a year and then applying fertility control on top to really make sure that we’re able to cut into the population and achieve appropriate management levels here in the next five to 10 years,” Norris said. 

Some wild horse advocates say sterilization is among the most humane ways to cull the population, but Norris said that tactic alone doesn’t solve the problem of overpopulation in a timely way – after all, horses can live to 20 or 25 years old. Other ways to control the wild horse population would be to send those pulled off the range to slaughterhouses, or to be euthanized – two options that boast little to no support from the public or Congress.

“Horse advocates are a very passionate group of people, and as a result, (slaughtering horses) has been one of those landmine issues that no congressional office is really willing to take on,” Norris said. That is, except for Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz. Gosar has been pushing for changes in the law that would effectively allow for BLM-gathered horses to be sold and later slaughtered in Canada or Mexico.

The chances of Gosar’s proposal being approved appear to be slim. Yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment to the 2017 spending bill for USDA, FDA and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission that would extend a ban on the U.S. slaughter of horses that has been in place since 2007.


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