Since receiving federal protection in 1971, the population of wild horses and burros on public lands has soared.
Growing from 25,000 to 82,000, the population is now nearly triple the 27,000 managers say the land can support.
Overpopulation has been a problem for decades, and finding a solution has been difficult because it’s an issue where folks are entrenched in their different beliefs, said Ethan Lane, executive director of Public Lands Council and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association federal lands.
But an unlikely coalition has come up with a plan for non-lethal management that will both protect and reduce the population.
The coalition includes PLC, NCBA, the Society for Range Management and the American Farm Bureau Federation with the Humane Society of the U.S., American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation.
“These are groups that do not see eye-to-eye, that’s a fact,” Lane said.
In any other context, some of the groups at the very least disagree with how livestock producers make a living and at the worst actively try to put them out of business, he said.
But across the spectrum, the groups realize “we have a huge problem on our hands,” he said.
The Bureau of Land Management — tasked with managing and protecting wild horses and burros — has tried to deal with the overpopulation by removing animals from rangeland and putting them in off-range holding facilities to be sold or adopted. But those adoptions and sales haven’t kept up with the growth on the range of the population, which doubles every four years.
BLM now holds 50,000 wild horses and burros in off-range facilities at a cost of $50 million annually — nearly two-thirds of its budget for the program.
For years, the appropriations bills funding the program have included a rider preventing BLM from selling the animals to anyone who would destroy or commercially process them, he said.
Because of that conflict, populations on the range continue to grow, BLM’s holding facilities are at capacity and the agency’s only option is adoption. PLC and NCBA have been trying to get Congress to drop the rider for at least 10 years to no avail, and the effects have been devastating, he said.
The exploding horse populations are also causing irreparable damage to rangeland and impacting ranchers, he said.
“We have to get some relief for our producers on the ground who are decimated with these massive populations,” he said.
The coalition’s proposal is a common-ground, common-sense compromise that offers a solution, he said.
It calls for targeted round-ups and removals in densely populated areas, a rangeland fertility control program, relocating animals being held or removed to cost-effective pasture facilities funded through public-private partnerships and promoting adoption.
It will probably demand twice BLM’s current $80 million annual budget for the program, but hopefully Congress will get the program rolling with an additional $50 million, he said.
The coalition is anticipating legislation along that line to be introduced by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, who hosted the final push for a proposal, he said.