The acting head of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, William Perry Pendley, has said it will take five billion dollars and 15 years control the overpopulation of wild horses on federal lands in the western United States. The current population of 88,000 mustangs and burros, the majority of which reside in Nevada, needs to be reduced to 27,000 ‒ a number the over-grazed ranges can reasonably sustain.
To kickstart the initiative, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $35 million in September to support the implementation of a comprehensive package of humane and non-lethal management strategies for wild horses and burros on federal range lands. The effort is supported by a new coalition of animal welfare advocates and ranchers including the Humane Society of the United States, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation.
The funds are part of a $35.8 billion Interior Department appropriation bill which provides funding to address National Park maintenance backlogs and environmental and conservation programs, although it is not known when the full Senate will vote on the measure. The monies would be used to pay for additional staff to carry out roundups in densely-populated, for fertility control measures, and to move horses currently in short-term holding pens to larger, more humane pastures. In July, the current White House administration indicated it will not pursue mass culling or selling horses for slaughter.
Pendley reported that it is costing the BLM $50 million a year to feed and house the 50,000 coralled mustangs in government pens, as well as $30 million in other costs associated with their care. The good news is that more than 7,000 mustangs and burros were adopted out last year — a 15-year high that represented a 54% increase over 2018. This increase in finding homes for the wild equines has cleared up space in government holding pens, allowing for more frequent roundups. Scientists continue to work on new fertility-control drugs in an attempt to shrink herd sizes and eliminate the need for slaughter. The new plan would also allow for the sterilization of mares.
There is some opposition to the proposal, including by the American Wild Horse Campaign and Friends of Animals who call it a betrayal by “so-called wild horse advocates who are in bed with the meat industry” and warn that it guarantees the mustangs’ extinction. Critics also argue that, under the rules of the Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, the horses must be allowed to roam the range in federally-protected areas, and that the BLM’s population quotas to manage populations via culling and roundups lack scientific evidence and are outdated. Conservationists also continue to contend that more damage is caused by cattle and sheep grazing, with populations 15 times greater than those of the mustangs.
Alan Shepherd, the head of the bureau’s wild horse and burro program in Nevada, planned to join members of the new coalition at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno Wednesday night for the screening of a documentary that blames horses for severe degradation of federal rangeland.
Doug Busselman, executive director of the Nevada Farm Bureau, said his group still wants Congress to allow the government to sell excess horses without the current ban on their resale for slaughter.
“As long as the numbers are so far above appropriate management levels, the tools of fertility control and adoption don’t accomplish the needs for having wild horse and burro populations match the carrying capacity of the herd management levels and the destruction of the habitat will continue,” he said in a statement.
“This film is a propaganda piece … that scapegoats relatively rare wild horses for problems that in truth are caused by the domestic cattle that are widespread environmental problems across the West,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist for the Western Watersheds Project.