RENO — Federal land managers
say it will take two decades and cost more than $1 billion over the first six
years alone to slash wild horse populations to sustainable levels necessary to
protect U.S. rangeland.
The Bureau of Land
Management's latest plans envision capturing 200,000 mustangs over the next two
decades. It also wants to build corrals to hold thousands more than current
capacity and adopt regulations allowing the permanent sterilization of horses
roaming federal lands for the first time.
"The overall funding
requirements could be staggering," the bureau acknowledged in a report to
Congress this week.
The strategy underscores the
volatility of the decades-long controversy pitting horse advocates against
ranchers whose livestock compete for federally subsidized forage across 10
"The estimates in this
analysis are intended to identify to committees the severity of program
challenges," the agency said.
The 25-page report repeats 10
separate times that the estimates "should not be construed to imply
Administration support for particular levels of appropriations for this program
beyond FY 2021."
However, it also suggests
Congress should put its money where its mouth is when it comes to managing
mustangs, noting that language congressional conferees included in the Interior
Department's last appropriation bill states it is "incumbent upon the
bureau to request the funding necessary to address this growing problem."
The bureau says if nothing is
done to curb annual growth rates of herds that naturally double every four or
five years, the number of wild horses and burros on the range could exceed 2.8
million by 2040.
It stops short of repeating past requests to eliminate prohibitions on the resale of excess horses for slaughter.
But horse defenders said
that's clearly the intention of painting such a dire picture of the challenges.
They argue horses grazing federal land are dramatically outnumbered by cattle
that cause significantly more ecological damage.
"By prioritizing the
failed approach of mass roundup and warehousing of tens of thousands of wild
horses in holding facilities, the agency is setting the stage for the ultimate
slaughter of these American icons," said Suzanne Roy, executive director
of the American Wild Horse Campaign.
Rep. Raul Grijalva,
D-Arizona, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said a more
sustainable path would require use of fertility controls, "not surgical
sterilization or other inhumane methods."
"This report envisions
massive roundups without a viable plan for dealing with the horses once they've
left the range," he said. "It's almost as if the BLM is setting
itself up for failure."
The bureau maintains the range can only support 27,000 horses — something horse advocates dispute.
The agency said it captured 80,000 horses and burros during the 1990s. By 2000, about 48,000 remained on the range, with 10,000 in holding facilities. Now, it estimates 88,000 roam the range, with 47,000 in government corrals and off-range pastures.
It plans more contraception
research but warns "using only short-term fertility control vaccines at
any scale" won't significantly reduce on-range populations.
Kaitlynn Glover, executive
director of the Public Lands Council and National Cattlemen Beef Association
Natural Resources, said the report "provides clear and welcome recognition
of the hard decisions that are necessary to protect our rangelands and the
Nevada Farm Bureau Executive
Vice President Doug Busselman said accelerated roundups and sterilizations are
"The current condition
of over-population is not acceptable," he said.
Congress allocated $80
million annually for the efforts from 2011 to 2019. The bureau estimates it
needs $900 million over the first five years to rein in herds — $116 million
next year, growing to $238 million by year five.
"With potentially more than 250,000 animals being held in off-range pastures, a spike in daily feed rates could dramatically increase out-year funding needs," it said.