What’s the Story with the Bureau of Land Management’s Adoption Incentive Program (AIP)?

Photo of Mustangs in holding

Almost four years ago, the BLM rolled out a program to incentivize the adoption of wild horses and burros. All animals available for adoption qualified for the “Adoption Incentive Program,” with adopters receiving $500 when they adopted their animal, and a year later, an additional $500 when they applied for title. We have long worried that these kind of incentive programs are never a good idea. Adopting a horse or burro is a long-term and expensive commitment. Giveaways and other ‘specials’ may be an easy way for BLM to unload their stockpile of captured wild horses and burros, but sadly many end up abused, neglected and in the slaughter pipeline. Return to Freedom and a cadre of other animal welfare and wild horse advocacy organizations cautioned the BLM that offering a cash incentive could lead to disaster.

Fast forward to 2021, and a New York Times (NYT) article described how horses adopted through the AIP were effectively being “flipped,” with owners receiving title and their $1000 incentive from the BLM as well as whatever they could get at a sales barn — walking away from their presumably adopted-to-a-good-home horse days after receiving said title.

The public was unimpressed and angry.

In the spring and summer of 2022, a series of stakeholder meetings to dig into concerns with the AIP was facilitated for the BLM by a collaborative problem solving organization out of Salt Lake City called The Langdon Group. The people and organizations present were from government agencies, animal welfare organizations (specifically wild horse advocacy groups), public lands conservation organizations, and universities, to name a few. Not all organizations agreed that there were inherent problems with the program, but there was general consensus around the following ideas at the beginning of the meetings:

– cash incentives can be taken advantage of;

– vouchers instead of cash seem like a good idea (for vet care, transportation, training, farrier, feed);

– gentled horses don’t tend to show up for sale later; and

– a broad network of support for people who adopt could be a positive outcome for the BLM’s adoption program in general.


By the second meeting, ideas were further fleshed out, and discussions about what might be shorter- or longer-term solutions were hashed through. Not all of these may be possible, but they might offer some portion of a solution:

– language could be strengthened in adoption contracts so that horses would be returned if they could no longer be cared for;

– people who had essentially utilized the AIP to “flip” horses could be banned from adopting again;

– compliance checks could be beefed up;

– enforcement ability for BLM and/or local or state enforcement could be expanded after titling;

– adoption agreement could be amended to allow for compliance checks after titling;

– time to titling could be extended;

– protection of BLM horses and burros could extend past 1 year (3-5 or a lifetime);

– expand what vouchers could be used for;

– stringent pre-adoption applications and background checks to pre-approve applicants;

– obtain additional data about people and their horses or burros post-adoption so that tweaks to program will be appropriate to what’s really going on with adopted animals;

– education to help people understand that adopting an animal is a long term commitment; and

– expansion of a community and network of adopters.


The 1971 Act doesn’t allow for anything and everything, and BLM policies and regulations can sometimes become obstacles to what seem like good ideas. At the end of the meetings, the BLM communicated that they would explore the following ideas. This did not mean that they would institute any of them, but that they would be worth investigating and discussing with upper level leadership:

– replacing cash incentives with vouchers;

– ability to exercise discretion in offering the AIP to certain individuals;

– potential to require AIP animals be gentled at one-year mark;

– supporting interested parties in establishing a community of successful adopters to share tips, safe handling techniques, training methods;

– potential to support states in managing local networks to develop public/private partnerships and train volunteers for compliance checks, reception of returned animals, and reporting; and

– limiting number of incentives available to each adopter.


So now what?

Has any of the above happened?

No. The cash incentive program continues in spite of RTF and other advocates witnessing and providing documentation of hundreds of underfed AIP mustangs and burros being dumped at sale barns and feed lots just days or weeks after being titled. With the documentation it is very clear where the majority of this is happening, and often the same families are doing this over and over. Oklahoma and Texas have the highest number of repeat offenders and equines dumped after titling.

BLM leadership recently requested that public comments be gathered before any further action was taken.

To say we are frustrated by this in an understatement.

Based on public outcry due to BLM-branded horses and burros ending up at sales barns very shortly after AIP adopters received title and their $1000 – money intended to incentivize better care for their adopted animals, and not as an increased profit when combined with any additional funds secured by taking their animal to a sales barn – the BLM’s advisory board discussed the AIP in depth and made recommendations in regards to the program (October 2022 meeting); public comments submitted at that board meeting primarily focused on the AIP; three facilitated stakeholder meetings were held; and comments have been directed to the BLM and Congressional Representatives since the NYT AIP story broke in 2021. We feel that the public has spoken, and has expressed their concerns. It is time now for the BLM to act on suggestions from the public, the board and the stakeholder report.

It must be said that trying to determine the degree of the problem has been difficult. Is this a matter of a few players taking advantage of an easily played system, or is it rampant? RTF filed a Freedom of Information (FOIA) to analyze AIP adopters and compare them with mustangs and burros dumped at the kill pens. We do not yet have a response. Because complaints about AIP horses or burros in sales barns or known kill pens are not captured with any degree of accuracy, and because advocates are frustrated by a lack of formality to any complaint process, it falls to NYT reporters and advocates to try to piece together sometimes haphazard information and to report that back to BLM leadership, who easily respond that “once a horse has received title, it is no longer protected by the 1971 Act, and thus the BLM has no recourse”. This isn’t the point, and this isn’t fair to the horses, nor to a program whose intent should be to celebrate and educate about the intrinsic value of our nation’s wild horses and burros.

The BLM has not used its increased budget for the program to improve their staffing and infrastructure needs to address best practices. Increasing their willingness to work with land owners who want to help the horses, reviewing contracts, implementing in-person compliance checks, better managed holding corrals, and implementing fertility control on the range are all necessary and overlooked components to change. But the BLM continues on like a rusty machine, leaving the horses and burros the program was created to protect and preserve suffering to their death if they are unlucky enough to slip through holes in the AIP…and using our tax dollars to pay for it.

Tell Congress to hold the agency accountable, not the horses who are paying with their lives.