Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is proposing to move wild horses – for many an iconic image of the wildness of the West – to controlled preserves in the East or Midwest. The plan is intended to tackle the growing environmental problems associated with wild horses and burros as their populations swell on what are often marginal desert landscapes.
“It’s both a humane solution and a fiscally-responsible solution,” said Bob Abbey, director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management which runs the wild horse program, on Wednesday.
Salazar is asking Congress to create two new preserves to maintain herds of nonproductive horses and burros that are rounded up on public lands each year but are not adopted.
The BLM maintains nearly 32,000 wild horses and burros, including 9,500 in expensive short-term corrals. That’s due in part to a sharp decline in adoptions, which the agency attributes to the economic downturn. This past year, the agency estimates it spent $29 million caring for the animals, consuming most of the wild horse and burro program’s $40.6 million budget.
“We have a program that’s not working,” Salazar said. “We need a program that works for everybody.”
Salazar estimates the program will cost $92 million in land acquisition, a figure he expects will be made up in taxpayer savings within 10 years.
The wild horses conjure images of the bucolic West. The descendants of horses brought by conquistadors and settlers, they run free on ranges across the West. The reality is often “not a pretty picture,” though, Salazar said. Often, the horses are left hungry and thirsty as growing populations are forced to compete for dwindling resources on barren lands.
More than 33,000 wild horses live in 10 Western states, where they have no natural predators. In an effort to protect their range, which is suffering from overgrazing, the BLM removes thousands of wild horses and burros from public rangelands each year and offers them for adoption. Unadopted animals are kept in short-term corrals or long-term pastures.
While other species’ populations are controlled by hunting, Abbey said, “That’s certainly not appropriate when you’re talking about wild horses or wild burros.”
The current program “is not sustainable for the animals, the environment or the taxpayer,” Salazar wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and eight other members of Congress with jurisdiction over wild horse issues.
In Reid’s own Nevada, home too many of the animals, the wild horses “are in very bad condition,” Salazar said.
His new plan is intended to move the unadopted horses and burros to lands in the East and Midwest where the landscape is lusher and better able to sustain them. The proposal is meant to address concerns raised by the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Government Accountability Office, both of which have sounded alarms about the costs of the wild horse and burro program. The GAO warned it’s at a “critical crossroads” and urged the BLM to work with Congress to find a cheaper way to manage unadopted horses.
Salazar argued the animals ought to be moved from the drought- and fire-stricken West. His plan also calls for showcasing some of the herds on Western lands, reducing the herds’ populations and possibly using nonprofit groups, like those of wild horse supporters, to help manage the new preserves.