November 11, 2008

BLM aims to tame cost of caring for wild horses

The BLM hosted a wild horse adoption last year in Herriman. The agency cares for growing numbers of animals in captivity and in the wild. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

By Lee Davidson
Deseret News

To protect Utah rangelands from overgrazing, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management removes 300 to 400 wild horses and burros a year, but it is able to adopt out only 250 of them. The agency will not destroy the rest for fear of public outcry — so it cares for escalating numbers of them in captivity.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office said Monday such practices throughout the West have reached a crisis point, where BLM officials now manage "almost the same number of animals off the range as they do in the wild."

It says the agency must either destroy or sell for slaughter thousands of the horses in captivity — or run out of money to care for horses in the wild, where neglect could increase horse deaths from effects of drought or starvation.

"BLM decided not to destroy excess unadoptable animals (beginning in 1982) ... because of public dismay," when it killed 47 horses the previous year, said the GAO, a research arm of Congress.

Because of that, the BLM now cares for just over 30,000 wild horses and burros in captivity. The GAO said the BLM manages about 33,100 horses and burros in the wild in the West — or just a bit more than it now has in captivity.

In Utah, the BLM estimates about 3,100 wild horses and burros are on open ranges. Gus Warr, BLM lead in Utah for its wild horse and burro program, says short-term holding facilities in Herriman, Delta and Gunnison currently hold 1,300 animals total, while others have been transferred to long-term holding facilities elsewhere to seek adoption.

The GAO noted that the cost of caring for the animals in captivity has grown from about half of the wild horse and burro program's costs in 2000 to two-thirds of its total in 2007.

Costs of caring for animals in captivity climbed from $7 million in 2000 to nearly $21 million last year.

"BLM must now choose between either managing the range to prevent overpopulation or exercise one or both or its other options — destroying animals or selling them without limitation" on such things as allowing them to be slaughtered for meat or used as rodeo bucking stock, the GAO said.

It added that the BLM finally "is considering euthanizing about 2,300 horses from short-term holding. ... In addition, they are considering selling without limitation (thus allowing slaughter for meat) about 8,000 animals from both short- and long-term holding."

In response, the BLM issued a written statement that it concurs with the GAO report and its findings — but said it has made no final decisions about euthanizing horses or allowing their slaughter. It said no such decision will be made until after its National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board meets next week in Reno.

Besides slaughter or expensive continued care in captivity of horses, the GAO said the BLM and Congress might consider some alternatives not now allowed by law.

For example, GAO said several state directors of wild horse programs suggest giving tax deductions or one-time lump sum incentives to ranchers to care for unwanted wild horses. "Implementing tax deductions would likely require changes in tax law," the GAO said.

It also said that the law governing wild horses now "does not allow BLM to relocate wild horses and burros to areas of public lands where they were not found when the act was passed. To date, BLM has not sought the legislative changes that would make these suggestions possible" — even though some BLM officials have offered it as a partial solution.