Get the facts about BLM’s Wild Horse & Burro Program

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Photo taken at RTF’s American Wild Horse Sanctuary by Irene Vejar.

Overview: Whether motivated by money or politics, those who wish to see free-roaming wild horses and burros captured and removed from our public lands consistently focus on their frustration and tales of these iconic animals destroying rangeland, starving or both.

Those of us who advocate for the wild horses and burros do need to accept that livestock ranchers also have a right to graze our federal lands, whether we agree or not. And livestock ranchers need to accept the presence of the free-roaming horses and burros on the small percentage of federal lands (just 11%) made available to them. In fact, there is far more federal land available for private livestock that is impacted by climatic conditions and grazing where wild horses do NOT exist.

 The truth is that the wild horse and burro program has not been managed well or consistently by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which clings to an antiquated, inhumane and expensive system of helicopter roundups and warehousing of wild horses and burros despite the existence of safe, proven fertility control vaccine. Since 2007, BLM never invested even 4% of its annual program budget on fertility control or other humane, on-range management tools and practices, even as the cost of roundups and holding facilities to taxpayers – and to the animals themselves – keeps climbing. The result: 43,886 wild horses and 1,434 burros — about 36% of all wild horses and burros under BLM management – now lives in a corral or on a leased pasture.

 To differing degrees, our rangelands do suffer from overgrazing, impaction, and degraded riparian areas, but we cannot escape the fact that our public lands are managed, under the law, for myriad uses, from energy exploration to public recreation. Wild horses are often singled out – unfairly – for blame when, in fact, they are caught in the middle of a struggle over the use of natural resources. Privately owned livestock, which are also entitled to graze on public lands under the law, outnumber wild horses by up to 50 to 1 on some ranges. The number of cattle and sheep are admittedly more easily managed. Most ranchers do pull livestock off the range to protect habitat and future grazing ability, though we have seen first-hand “trespass livestock” fenced in around springs long after their annual grazing lease period is over for the year.  It’s important to move away from casting blame and instead work toward a deep understanding of livestock, wildlife, and wild horse use of public lands if we are to ensure sustainable, healthy herds and habitat.

Horse as Native to North America: Some who demand the removal of most or all wild horses go so far as to call them an invasive species – or worse. On this subject, we defer to Dr. Ross MacPhee, curator at the American Museum of Natural History, who is pursuing ancient DNA research into the origins of the horse. According to McPhee, the evidence shows that family Equidae, which includes all living horses, zebras, and asses, plus all of their extinct relatives, originated in North America approximately 53 million years ago. Since that time, equids have continuously evolved, producing numerous lineages. All of these are extinct except for the remaining species within genus Equus. The horse traveled over the Bering Land Bridge over millions of years as part of a migratory journey, along with many other mammals, many now extinct. Fossil evidence had long supported the idea that horses, once leaving the Americas, evolved into a new species, and so the horses which Spanish explorers brought to the New World were unfamiliar to this land. Advances in molecular genetics have proven otherwise: the horse completed its last adaptation in North America before its absence (for what was ostensibly a short-term blip in geologic time scales), and so when the Spanish and then early European settlers brought horses to this new land, these horses – Equus caballus – were, in fact, returning home.

Man-Made Crisis: There is no “wild horse problem” or “wild horse crisis” in which an invasive species is ravaging our rangelands. Rather, there is a “range crisis” – on land with and without wild horses — that is largely man-made and is impacted by livestock grazing, droughts and other climatic changes. The conflict over the presence of our iconic free-ranging wild horses and burros is a challenge that can be met with political will and thoughtful, science-based management. Viable solutions do exist to allow wild horses — a reintroduced native species – to remain free on their rightful home ranges and for balance to be achieved on our shared public lands to benefit wild horses and all wildlife and livestock grazing.

FACT 1: The BLM’s “Appropriate Management Level” (AML) allows for 26,690 wild horses – just 1,390 more than at the time the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was enacted out of concern for their dwindling population.

In 1971, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act to protect these “fast disappearing” American icons. It mandated that the BLM, with the help of the U.S. Forest Service, manage, preserve and protect our wild horses and burros on those federal public lands where these herds were living prior to the law’s passage.

BLM estimates that there were about 25,300 wild horses and burros on federal land in 10 Western states at that time. Currently, the agency’s population allows for 26,690 wild horses – just 1,390 more than at the time the law was enacted out of concern for their dwindling population. BLM’s task is complicated by federal laws requiring that it also manage public lands for livestock grazing (1934 Taylor Grazing Act) and other “multiple uses” (1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act), a balancing act that includes a variety of energy projects and recreation, as well as other wildlife, managed by hunting permits, and their habitats.

FACT 2: Since 1971, 22.2million acres of land have been removed as wild horse habitat.

  • In 1971, wild horses and burros roamed on 53.8 million acres of land, of which 42.4 million acres were under the BLM’s jurisdiction. Herd Areas and Herd Management Areas were created on those areas managed by the BLM as mandated by Congress with the passing of The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

Today, the BLM manages wild horses and burros in subsets of these Herd Areas (known as Herd Management Areas) that comprise 31.6 million acres, of which 26.9 million acres are under BLM management. (Total number of Herd Management Areas: 177.) In total, BLM manages more than 245 million acres of America’s public lands and about 700 million acres of its subsurface minerals.

DWINDLING HABITAT

  • 53,800,000:  Acres of federal land on which wild horses were found in 1971.
  • 42,400,000:  Acres of BLM land on which wild horses were found in 1971
  • 31,600,000:  Acres of land on which wild horses found today.
  • 26,900,000:  Acres of BLM land on which wild horses are found today.

Wild horse habitat has decreased by 41% since 1971, including a net loss of 15.5 million acres of BLM land originally designated for wild horses and burros.

FACT 3: About 36% of federally protected wild horses and burros live not free on the range, where they belong, but in a government holding facility.

  • The BLM estimates that 66,976 wild horses and 14,975 burros are roaming on BLM-managed rangelands in 10 Western states, as of March 1, 2018.
  • As of July 2018, there were 43,886 wild horses and 1,434 burros in government holding facilities (8,827 in short-term holding corrals, 35,850 in long-term holding pastures in the Midwest and 643 in eco-sanctuaries).

FACT 4: The BLM intends to reduce the wild horse and burro population down to the level that existed in 1971 when Congress deemed that they were “fast disappearing” and needed to be protected.

  • The BLM estimates that there were 25,300 wild horses in 1971 when Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burros Act.
  • The BLM has set a national “Appropriate Management Level” (AML) of just 26,690 wild horses and burros. The agency is scheduling roundups to reduce the current estimated population down to this low number. The national AML would leave about 1 horse or burro for every 1,008 acres managed for them by the BLM

NOTE: While it is true that the range conditions today would differ from 1971, there is no doubt that America’s wild horses and burros are allocated a smaller piece of the American pie.  We would hope for independent analysis of each range to properly balance livestock grazing permits with wild horse populations with a fairer distribution of AUMs (see glossary) for the horses -alongside proven safe and humane fertility control to maintain healthy herds and habitats.

POPULATIONS UNDER DEBATE

  • More than 1 million: Estimated free-roaming wild horses in the West at the end of the 19thcentury
  • 25,300: Wild horses when 1971 Wild Free Roaming Horses & Burros Act passed
  • 66,976*: Current wild horse population
  • 14,975*: Current wild burro population
  • 26,690: BLM target wild horses and burro population
  • <   70,000:  Number of federally listed, endangered big horn sheep in the West.

*March 2018 BLM estimates

FACT 5:  Wild horses and burros are vastly outnumbered by privately owned cattle and sheep on BLM lands. Wild horses are restricted to about 11 percent of BLM-managed lands, which they must share with livestock. Yet even on the small amount of BLM land designated as wild horse habitat, the BLM allocates the majority of forage to private livestock, not wild horses.

  • The BLM administers about 245 million acres of public lands (more than any other federal agency). Livestock grazing is authorized on 155 million acres of those lands.Wild horses are restricted to 26.9 million acres of BLM land.
  • Authorized livestock use on BLM lands for 2016 was 12 million Animal Unit Months (AUMs). That’s the equivalent of 1 million cow/calf pairs. (1 AUM = 1 horse, 1 cow/calf pair, 5 sheep.)Authorized wild horse use on BLM lands is 320,580 AUMs.

FACT 6: Government-subsidized ranching is the driving force behind the mass removal of wild horses from public lands. The cattlemen’s lobby wants to maintain access to taxpayer-subsidized, commercial livestock grazing on public lands.

  • The BLM charges ranchers $1.41 per AUM (down from $1.87 in 2017). That compares to a 2016 market rate for private land ranching of about $20 per animal per month.
  • A 2015 Center for Biological Diversity study estimated that the costs to U.S. taxpayers for public lands grazing amounted to more than $1 billion over a decade.

FACT 7: A cost-effective and humane alternative to roundup & removal is available, but it is not being adequately implemented by the BLM.

  • PZP fertility control has been shown to be effective and safe. A non-hormonal vaccine, it has minimal effects on behavior.
  • A 2013 economic model published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine found that the BLM could attain its management goals within 12 years using fertility control. The study found that using fertility control could save $8 million at one Herd Management Area alone. “It stands to reason that such an approach could result in a cost-savings of tens of millions of dollars” if PZP were used throughout BLM lands, rather than removing wild horses from public lands and placing them in holding facilities.
  • BLM is underutilizing PZP and continuing the large-scale and fiscally unsustainable removal of wild horses from public lands in the West. Since 2007, BLM has never spent more than 3.94% of its annual Wild Horse and Burro Program budget allocation on safe and effective fertility control vaccines.
  • In 2016, BLM used about 67% of the Wild Horse and Burro Program budget spent to roundup, remove and stockpile horses compared to .61% spent on fertility control to manage horses on the range.
  • BLM’s failure to implement PZP adequately contributed to the ever-increasing reproduction on the range. In 2017, 45,320 wild horses and burros were warehoused in government holding facilities, costing taxpayers about $47.5 million annually to house, feed and care for them.

UNSUSTAINABLE CYCLE OF ROUNDUP, REMOVAL & STOCKPILING

  • 25,636:  Number of wild horses removed from the range 2012-17
  • 16,089: Number of wild horses and burros adopted through BLM adoption program 2012-17
  • 1,615: Number of wild horses sold by BLM 2012-17
  • 8,827: Number of wild horses and burros in short-term holding facilities as of July 2018
  • 35,850:Number of wild horses and burros in long-term holding facilities as of July 2018
  • 643: Number of wild horses in eco-sanctuaries as of July 2018
  • 45,320: Total number of wild horses and burros in holding facilities as of July 2018

COSTS

  •  $2.07: Per day per horse cost in long-term holding in FY2017
  •  $5.03:Per day per horse cost in short-term holding in FY2017
  •  $133,225: Per day cost to taxpayers to maintain horses in holding facilities in FY2017

FY 2017 BUDGET

  • $24.35 million: Long-term holding costs
  • $24.28 million: Short-term holding costs
  • $4.22 million: Roundup/Removal
  • $144,551: Fertility control (not including gather costs)
  • $7.91 million: Adoption, sales and compliance inspections
  • $21.33 million: Other costs, including monitoring HMAs, construct / maintain range projects
  • $80.555 million: Total FY 2017 appropriations
  • $82.567 million: Total FY 2017 expenditures

FACT 8: The threat of slaughter for human consumption is a danger that is ever-present for mustangs that have been rounded up and removed from the range.

  • An average of 149,559 horses were trucked to slaughter plants in Mexico and Canada annually from 2008-16, according to the USDA.
  • The terror, trauma and pain that horses endure in transport to slaughterhouses and on the slaughter floor – where they have been documented to have their throats cut while they are fully conscious – is unacceptable, especially because these animals are our companions and partners in competition, work and recreation.
  • The foreign market for horsemeat is driving the sale of U.S. horses for slaughter. Americans do not eat horsemeat.
  • Under a 2004 sale authority law, commonly called the “Burns Amendment,” BLM is directed to sell “without limitation” wild horses age 10 and older or younger horses who have not been adopted after three tries. BLM has sold more than 5,900 wild horses and burros since 2005. The 4,100 sold between 2005 and 2010 were sold for an average of just $17 apiece.
  • Although it is the BLM policy not to send any wild horses or burros to slaughter, truckloads of “sale authority” horses are sold from long-term holding facilities.
  • The solution to the problem of unwanted horses in the U.S. is not slaughter, but rather responsible breeding and humane euthanasia.

KEY LEGISLATION

 1934 Taylor Grazing Act: Empowers the Secretary of the Interior to establish and oversee grazing districts on federal land through a permit system. Permittees must pay a fee. Permits cannot exceed 10 years but are renewable. They can be revoked because of drought or other natural disasters.

1959 “Wild Horse Annie Act”: Bars the use of motorized vehicles to hunt for the purposes of capturing or killing wild horses and burros on public lands and prohibits polluting water holes for the purpose of killing, injuring or capturing wild horses or burros.

1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA): Requires federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts and reasonable alternatives to their proposed actions. Agencies must prepare a detailed statement known as an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, as amended: States that wild horses and burros are to be considered in the area where they were found at the time of the law’s passage; provides for the protection of wild horses and burros from capture, branding, harassment or death; directs the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service to manage the animals under their jurisdiction. The law also enables the agencies to use helicopters to capture and remove wild horses and burros. The 2004 “Burns Amendment” allows for the sale of wild horses and burros ages 10-over or that have been passed over for adoption three times.

1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA):Establishes the BLM’s multiple-use mandate; requires the BLM to take into account the long-term needs of future generations for renewable and non-renewable resources, including, but not limited to, recreation, range, timber, minerals, watershed, wildlife and fish, and natural scenic, scientific and historical value and that BLM must include affected citizens in the planning and decision-making process through hearings and other mechanisms.

GLOSSARY

Animal Unit (AU): 1 AU is typically defined as 1,000 pounds of animal. An adult cow or wild horse 1 year of age and older count as 1 AU, while adult burros count as .5 AU.

Animal Unit Month (AUM): The amount of forage necessary to sustain one cow-calf pair, one adult horse, five sheep or two burros per month.

Appropriate Management Level (AML): The population target for adult horses or burros to be managed within a Herd Management Area / Wild Horse Territory, as set by the BLM or U.S. Forest Service. Forage for wild horses and burros is allocated based on the AML upper limit.

AML Range: The number of adult wild horses and burros within which herd size will be allowed to fluctuate, as set by the Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service.

AML Upper Limit:  The maximum number of wild horses or burros allowed on a Herd Management Area / Wild Horse Territory, as set by the BLM or U.S. Forest Service.

AML Lower Limit: The number that allows the population to grow to the AML upper limit over 4-5 years, without the need for gathers to remove “excess” wild horses or burros, as set by the BLM or U.S. Forest Service.

“Excess” animals: Wild, free-roaming horses or burros which have been removed or which must be removed from in order to preserve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance and multiple-use relationship in an area, as set by the BLM or U.S. Forest Service.

Fertility Control: A tool to decrease fertility and which, when implemented, slows population growth rates.

Free-Roaming: Wild horses and burros are able to move without restriction by fences or other barriers within a Herd Management Area / Wild Horse Territory.

Herd Area (HA): Areas in which wild horses and burros were found in 1971, at the time that the Free-Roaming Wild Horses and Burros Act became law. These are the ranges upon which the Bureau of Land Management may manage horses.

Herd Management Area (HMA): Areas within each HA found by BLM to have adequate food, water, cover and space to sustain healthy and diverse wild horse and burro populations.

Porcine Zona Pellucida Vaccine(PZP): PZP is an immunocontraceptive vaccine. It works with a mare’s immune system to produce antibodies that block sperm receptor sites on the zona pellucida, a thin membrane surrounding the ovum. Because it is non-hormonal, PZP does not: affect the endocrine system or natural behavior of horses, create negative health side effects or enter the food chain or harm other wildlife. The vaccine is reversible and can be administered by dart or by hand.

Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros: All unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros that use public lands within 10 contiguous Western States as all or part of their habitat, or that have been removed from these lands by the BLM or the U.S. Forest Service, or have been born of wild horses or burros in authorized BLM / USFS facilities, but have not lost their status under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

Wild Horse Territory: The U.S. Forest Service equivalent of a Herd Management Area.

BLM Herd Management Areas Map

Take Action

Sign RTF’s Wild on the Range petition, calling for humane management solutions.

Donate to RTF’s Wild Horse Defense Fund, which fuels our advocacy, lobbying and selective litigation efforts.

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