• The Washington Post


The U.S. West is on the verge of a serious horse crisis, says a new paper in Science, which argues that the wild horse population is growing so fast that the government could soon be unable to manage the herds.

There are currently some 33,000 wild horses roaming freely on public lands in the western United States, descendants of horses brought by Spanish conquistadors. Under a 1971 law, the Bureau of Land Management is supposed to protect these horses and make sure their numbers don’t get out of hand so they are not destroying the ecosystem or dying of starvation.

But that is easier said than done, and BLM has long struggled to bring the horse population down to the mandated level of 23,622. There are, after all, only a few thousand people willing to adopt horses each year. And Congress has largely restricted the slaughter of healthy horses.

So, in recent years, BLM has been rounding up excess horses and shipping them off to long-term “retirement” facilities — mainly private ranches in Kansas and Oklahoma. The problem is that this is hugely expensive. There are now 45,000 horses in these facilities, and BLM’s horse budget has soared from $19.8 million in 2000 to $74.9 million in 2012. Lately, Congress has started reining in spending. BLM has announced that it will remove fewer horses from public lands. At the same time, the wild horses keep breeding, with unmanaged herds able to triple in size in just six to eight years.

Put it all together, and it is a looming disaster.

The Science paper, written by Robert Garrott of the University of Montana and Madan Oli of the University of Florida, calculates that if current trends continue, BLM will have to spend some $1.1 billion over the next 17 years just to keep storing horses in these long-term facilities — a level far beyond anything Congress seems willing to contemplate. And if roundups are no longer an option, then the number of wild horses on U.S. public lands will start swelling — dramatically.

Garrott and Oli argue it is long past time to get America’s horse issues under control. That would start with an aggressive vaccine contraceptives program to cut the birthrates of the wild horses by half. But contraception by itself, they note, is insufficient. BLM will also need to remove many of the existing wild horses from public lands to bring the base population down to around 23,600.

There are two broad ways to do that: Congress could appropriate many more millions of dollars to have BLM store even more wild horses in long-term pastures. Or the government could kill off thousands of healthy horses. Either way, the Science paper argues, if Congress and BLM could figure out how to get the number of wild horses down to around 23,000 or so — and soon — then contraceptives plus adoptions could likely keep the population at a sustainable level, for good. It is just that getting to that sustainable level is the tricky part. “We think this can be resolved,” Garrott said. “But it’s going to take a real forward-looking plan.”

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