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Even if you have only a passing interest in following the news, you’ve likely seen some of the many stories that have run about the plight of America’s wild horses and burros. It is a hot topic!

While vast, our public lands are in great demand by many different users, often with desires that run counter to the needs of horses and burros. Recreation, ranching, mining resource extraction, and wildlife all compete for this finite resource. And, with our growing population, things are only going to get more desperate. America’s horses and burros are smack dab in the middle of a growing range war.

Overall, there is little agreement between the stakeholders as to how America’s wild horses and burros should be managed. There are some who want to eliminate the horses altogether, claiming they are not a native species. And those who want to reduce the number cows grazing on public lands and increase the number of horses. Often, there is debate about how many horses there really are on our public lands. Some say that the BLM has been systematically reducing the land that was originally set aside for horses and burros, while others push to transfer America’s public lands to control by individual states. The disagreements go on and on, and generally there seems to be little in the way of consensus.

If you were to attend some of the semi-annual Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board Meetings that the BLM sponsors, your head would likely start spinning as you tried to keep up with all of the different opinions that get expressed. Depending on your point of view, some would seem logical and some would not.

As a Foundation, we decided to narrow our focus to working on a couple of issues that most groups can agree are a problem.

Issue #1:
There are too many horses and burros who have been removed from the range being housed in short and long-term facilities.
According to Joan Guilfoyle, chief of BLM’s wild horse and burro division, there were about 49,000 horses and burros in holding facilities in 2013. Given that there were approximately 10,000 horses in holding back in 2002, it seems obvious that this problem is not going to go away on its own.

There are two major ways that these horses and burros get out of jail, so to speak: 1) Natural attrition (i.e. death), and 2) adoption. Horses in captivity can live for as long as 30 years, and BLM has only averaged 2,000-3,000 adoptions per year (and lately it’s been more on the lower end of that range). If no more horses were added to the facilities, it could take 20 years for adoptions to clear the pens.

In addition to being a less than ideal way of life for the animals, storage fees have a crippling effect on BLM’s annual budget:

64% of BLM’s wild horse and burro budget went to holding in 2013.
BLM pays about $9,055 per animal that is adopted (includes cost of round-up, short-term corralling at $5 per day, and cost of adoption process)
BLM pays about $46,252 per animal if not adopted (includes cost of round-up, short-term holding, and long-term holding for 25 years)
Long-term holding rates have been about $1.30-1.45 per day per animal. However, these contracts are getting harder to fill and costs will likely go up.

ISSUE 2: On-range management needs to be improved.

There is a lot of pressure on the BLM to keep the individual herds within their allotted sizes. Given ideal conditions, horse reproductive rates can be as high as 20% per year, which means that a herd’s size could double in as few as 4-5 years. Joan Guilfoyle predicted that with no management intervention, wild horse populations could hit 1,000,000 by 2030 (this includes both BLM-managed and BLM-non-managed wild horses – her current estimates put BLM-managed animal numbers at about 40-50k, and about 150-200k on other lands.)

In the past, BLM’s only solution to control horse herds that exceeded their allotted number was to round them up and remove some of the herd. In addition to costing about $1,000 per animal, round-ups can be very hard on horses and burros. Even under the best conditions, animals can get injured and hurt. At the very least, their bands are broken-up and family members are separated.

We think there are better solutions than using round-ups to control herd growth. The BLM has started some use of contraceptive techniques on the range. We think contraception needs to be implemented much more broadly.