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Factsheet on Challenges Facing the BLM in its Management of Wild Horses and Burros

July 2008
Bureau of Land Management


Factsheet on Challenges Facing the BLM in its Management of Wild Horses and Burros


The BLM’s goal in the West is to manage healthy, free-roaming herds on healthy rangelands.  To do that, we must confront a number of tough challenges. Wild horses and burros have virtually no natural predators and their herd sizes can double about every four years.  As a result, the agency must remove thousands of animals from Western public rangelands each year to ensure that herd sizes are consistent with the land’s capacity to support them.

As of June 2008, there are more than 30,000 removed (or “excess”) wild horses and burros that are fed and cared for at short-term (corral) and long-term (pasture) holding facilities.  Currently, animals placed in long-term holding live out the rest of their lives there, which can be from 10 to 25 years depending on the age at which they enter long-term holding.

The BLM attempts to place as many animals as possible each year into private care through public adoptions, but adoptions have been declining in recent years because of higher fuel and feed costs.  Adoptions declined from 5,701 in Fiscal Year 2005 to 4,772 in Fiscal Year 2007.  The BLM’s direct sales program, which primarily affects older animals, has met with limited success as currently implemented.

The BLM seeks to bring the number placed through adoption or sold each year into balance with the number that must be removed annually from the range.  As a result, fewer animals will need to be maintained in holding facilities.

It is essential to keep the BLM’s wild horse and burro program in balance.  The cost of keeping animals removed from Western rangelands in holding facilities is spiraling out of control and preventing the agency from successfully managing other parts of the program.

In Fiscal Year 2007, the BLM spent $38.8 million on its wild horse and burro program; the cost for holding wild horses and burros in short- and long-term facilities was $21.9 million, meaning holding costs accounted for more than half of what the BLM spent in Fiscal Year 2007 on its total wild horse and burro program.

In the current Fiscal Year (2008), holding costs will exceed $26 million, accounting for three-fourths of the Fiscal Year 2008 congressional appropriation to the BLM of about $37 million.  This level of funding is not sufficient to support summer removals from the range while maintaining lifetime holding for older unadopted animals.  To continue its current removal and holding practices, the BLM would need for its total wild horse and burro program: $44 million in 2008, $58 million in 2009, $65 million in 2010, $74 million in 2011, and $77 million in 2012.

The BLM faces difficult choices in the West’s wild horse and burro program.  Rising energy prices have increased costs and it is clear the agency cannot continue current removal and holding practices under existing and projected budgets.  In one year alone, energy costs for transportation and feed have increased almost $4 million.  Neither can the BLM allow horses to multiply unchecked on the range without causing an environmental disaster.  The BLM is looking at all options at this point to manage through the situation.  We have not made any decisions on which option to pursue, but we are in discussions with humane groups to find an appropriate legal solution.

The BLM is authorized under a December 2004 amendment to the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act to sell “without limitation” wild horses and burros that are either over 10 years old or have been passed over for adoption at least three times.  The BLM has thus far focused on sales only to those buyers whose intention is to provide long-term care.  As amended in 1978, the 1971 wild horse law also authorizes the BLM to euthanize excess wild horses and burros for which an adoption demand by qualified individuals does not exist.

If the BLM were to try to hold down budget costs by not removing excess horses from the range, the result would be an ecological disaster for Western public rangelands: overpopulation of herds, overgrazing of forage, eventual malnutrition and starvation of horses and burros, damage to native vegetation and riparian areas, damage to wildlife habitat, increased soil erosion, and lower water quality.

Regarding the difficulty of applying fertility control over a wide area, please click here.

General Background (also see Wild Horse and Burro Quick Facts)

The Bureau of Land Management protects, manages, and controls wild horses and burros under the authority of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 (as amended in 1976, 1978, and 2004) to ensure that healthy herds thrive on healthy rangelands.  The BLM manages wild horses and burros as part of its multiple-use mission under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976.

One of BLM’s key challenges in its wild horse and burro program is to reach the appropriate management level of approximately 27,300.  That is the number of free-roaming horses and burros that the Bureau has determined can thrive on BLM-managed lands in balance with other rangeland resources and uses.

As of February 29, 2008 (the latest date available for official data), there were approximately 33,000 wild horses and burros (about 29,500 horses and 3,500 burros) roaming on BLM-managed lands, a population that exceeds the appropriate management level by some 5,700 animals.  Off the range, there are more than 30,000 other wild horses and burros that are fed and cared for at short-term (corral) and long-term (pasture) holding facilities.

Wild horses and burros have virtually no natural predators and their herd sizes can double about every four years.  As a result, the agency must remove thousands of animals from the range each year to ensure that herd sizes are consistent with the land’s capacity to support them.  From Fiscal Year 2001 to Fiscal Year 2007, the BLM removed nearly 74,000 wild horses and burros from public rangelands.  In the most recent completed Fiscal Year (2007), the BLM removed 7,726 animals from the range and placed 4,772 into private care through adoption.  Since 1971, the BLM has placed through adoption more than 235,000 horses and burros, a process in which an individual may receive the title of ownership for up to four animals in a year after demonstrating one year of humane care.

Also, since December 2004, the BLM – as a result of an amendment to the 1971 wild horse and burro law – has been selling those wild horses and burros that are either more than 10 years old or have been passed over for adoption at least three times.  As of June 2008, the Bureau has sold more than 2,700 horses and burros; in these transactions, unlike adoptions, the title of ownership passes immediately from the Federal government to the buyer.  The BLM has thus far focused on sales only to those buyers whose intention is to provide long-term care.

Horses and burros that are unadopted or unsold are kept in short- or long-term holding facilities. In Fiscal Year 2008, the cost of holding and caring for these animals will exceed $26 million.  In Fiscal Year 2007, the BLM spent $38.8 million on its wild horse and burro program; the cost for holding wild horses and burros in short- and long-term facilities was $21.9 million, meaning holding costs accounted for more than half of what the BLM spent in Fiscal Year 2007 on its total wild horse and burro program.  The current (Fiscal Year 2008) appropriation of about $37 million is not sufficient to support summer gathers or maintain the existing high levels of animal holding.  If current removal and holding practices are to be continued, sufficient funding for total wild horse and burro program costs would be about $44 million in Fiscal Year 2008, rising to $58 million in Fiscal Year 2009 and to $77 million in Fiscal Year 2012.

– BLM –

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