December 26, 2005

Wild horses denied free rein

Thousands kept in pens as numbers exceed rangeland capacity

By Electa Draper, Staff Writer
Denver Post

Dove Creek - The notion of wild horses roaming the American West might be more a national delusion than a reality.

Almost 35 years ago, Congress proclaimed that the West's wild horses were an American treasure. It passed a law in 1971 to protect them from slaughter.

But the realities of the Bureau of Land Management wild horse and burro program are different from the romantic images painted then by Congress and still held by many Americans. Roughly 32,000 wild horses and burros roam the range in 10 Western states, but there were, by October of this year, another 24,500 wild horses and burros in holding facilities.

Of last year's BLM wild horse and burro budget of $39.6 million, more than half, $20.1 million, was spent to keep the animals off the range and in these holding facilities.

The problem with wild horses is basically a math problem. It has left the BLM looking for that magic sustainable number.

"It's a question of how you divide the forage pie. It always has been and always will be," says Fran Ackley, who heads up the BLM wild horse training and adoption facility in Cañon City. "There are some who want wild horses to get more and some who don't want them to get any."

With federal protection, wild horses and burros have virtually no natural predators left. Herd sizes can double about every five years, BLM spokesman Thomas Gorey says. As a result, the agency must remove thousands of animals from the range each year to control herd sizes.

Already, about 16,000 wild horses and burros, considered too old or too wild for adoption, are in long-term facilities, typically fenced grassy pastures of 15,000 to 35,000 acres. The BLM calls them sanctuaries. But more than 8,000 other animals are held in small pens.

And even the wild horses and burros on the range are confined to fenced herd-management areas to prevent their intrusion on private lands and their competition with grazing cattle.

Wild horses and burros are managed today in places where they were found roaming in 1971, when their numbers had dwindled to an estimated 17,000 because of their slaughter for profit. With the passage of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act, the BLM began designating 201 Herd Management Areas, 29.5 million acres. By comparison, private livestock grazing is authorized on 160 million acres of BLM-managed land.

Too few adoptions

Since 1973, the bureau has placed more than 207,000 animals into private ownership through its Adopt-A Horse Program. It isn't enough.

"We recognized a few years ago that we can't adopt our way out of the overpopulation problem," Ackley says.

The BLM has determined that the appropriate management level for horses and burros on the range should be 28,000 to keep the land healthy and to create a balance with other public uses, Gorey says. The plan is to round up 4,000 more horses over the next few years.

"I think we're going to be at our magic number in two years," Ackley says. "Then we will just have to remove yearly what can be adopted."

The small pens will be empty. In 10 or 15 years, the older animals in sanctuaries will pass away, Ackley says. It will relieve the American taxpayer of a $400 to $500 bill per horse per year.

"It's on the horizon," Ackley says. "We can do the job as long as the funding stays consistent."

But some wild-horse advocates say the BLM created the adoption backlog in the first place.

Andrea Lococo, a consultant with the Washington-based Animal Welfare Institute, says horses are removed from the range to cater to livestock owners hurt by droughts and wildfires. Until 2000, when the BLM decided to halve the number of wild horses and began massive roundups, she says, BLM adoptions could keep up.

Last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, the BLM had planned to remove 9,800 wild horses and burros from public rangelands. The BLM actually removed 11,023. The agency placed 5,701 into private ownership through adoption. The rest were "surplus" horses that required relocation to holding facilities.

The average adoption rate is 6,000 to 7,000 a year, but the BLM in recent years has taken about 10,000 animals off the range a year to preserve range health, BLM officials say.

In Colorado, the BLM rounded up 357 horses in 2005. About 700 wild horses remain on five Western Slope ranges.

More in pens than range

In contrast to the state population of 700 wild animals on the range, up to 1,400 at a time have been kept at the BLM's Cañon City training and adoption facility. The average horse's stay there is nine months, Ackley says.

Even if the designated ideal national number of 28,000 is reached and holding pens emptied, gathers will continue as a necessary evil to maintain it. The events are costly to taxpayers (several hundred dollars per horse). And these roundups break up bands and social order and frequently cause injuries and even death among horses.

The BLM also is expanding its use and study of fertility control to keep herd sizes down and delay roundups, but they will still be necessary, Gorey, the BLM spokesman, says.

But wild horses have another math problem. Roughly three- quarters of the herds are already smaller than 150, considered the minimum size at which a herd can maintain genetic vigor, Ackley says. The BLM compensates in many areas by occasionally introducing new blood lines into a herd - by bringing in a few mares from another herd every eight to 10 years.

Despite the problems with the program, Americans' romance with wild horses continues.
Wild-horse advocacy and support groups proliferate. The southwestern Colorado chapter of the National Mustang Association sprang into being in 1997 to help the 35 to 90 horses of the Spring Creek Herd north of Dove Creek. The group has purchased grazing permits, constructed water catchments and replaced hazardous fencing and is trying to talk the local BLM office into letting the group reseed some native grasses and other projects.

"All the BLM ever needs to say is 'help,' and we're right there," says founder Sherwood McGuigan. "But sometimes the BLM is not flexible about accepting help."