WASHINGTON, June 22, 2016 - The Bureau of Land Management came under heavy fire today from Republicans in a House hearing that focused on the surging overpopulation of wild horses that are damaging rangeland that livestock producers depend on.

Steve Ellis, BLM’s deputy director of operations, told lawmakers that there are now about 67,000 wild horses and burros roaming federal rangelands, far more than the 26,700 or so that experts say the land can sustain. The BLM is concerned, Ellis said, and stressed that more funds and research are needed before the agency can make significant dent in the overpopulation.

California Republican Tom McClintock, chairman of the Natural Resources’ Federal Lands subcommittee, dismissed Ellis’ explanation and hammered the agency for not acting more quickly.

Wild horses and burros are dying from starvation and dehydration, McClintock said, and the BLM has access to sterilization methods that can winnow the herds in a humane fashion

“What should be crystal clear to all of us is that the current system has failed miserably to protect these horses and the environment, and has now produced a catastrophic population explosion that threatens not only the horses, but every species dependent upon the sustained management of these lands, including an oft-forgotten endangered species, the American taxpayer,” McClintock said.

Ellis said the BLM is doing all it can do with the tools and funds at its disposal, but Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., was unwilling to listen.

“This is not winning,” LaMalfa said. “We’re getting further and further behind.”

Ellis agreed that the situation was not sustainable, but LaMalfa cut him off and declared that if the BLM couldn’t handle the responsibility than it should be taken away from the agency.

Another witness, Keith Norris, chairman of the National Horse & Burro Rangeland Management Coalition, said there are several surefire ways to rapidly reduce the wild horse and burro populations.

The BLM has the authority to euthanize or sell off the wild animals under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, Norris said. Barring those actions, which he said the agency would reject out of concern about the uproar they would create, BLM needs to begin to immediately sterilize as many mares as it can.

J.J. Goicoechea, representing the Public Lands Council and the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, agreed that mass sterilization is necessary and the sooner the better. The longer it takes, the more horses will die of starvation and dehydration, he said.

“While this last winter was an average winter across much of the West, the past several years have been years of record drought,” Goicoechea said. “Starvation and dehydration are inexcusable and inappropriate methods of population control.”

Norris stressed the government needs to begin rounding up horses as quickly as possible and sterilize 15,000 to 25,000 animals per year for the next couple of years. After that, he said, it should be only a minor job to keep the population in check.