November 11, 2008

GAO analysis: Wild horses in captivity giving feds fits

30,000 animals being held; last year's cost was $21 million

By Patty Henetz
The Salt Lake Tribune

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is struggling to pay for the upkeep of 30,000 wild horses and burros in captivity and hasn't figured out how to deal with the animals in Utah and across the West - short of increasingly rare adoptions or selling them for slaughter, a new federal report says.

The Government Accountability Office on Monday released its first analysis in 18 years of the BLM's actions under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. While the GAO acknowledged the BLM's progress, it also found the agency still hasn't developed a coherent nationwide management policy.

Advocates for the animals, considered symbols of the West as important as bald eagles for the nation at large, were outraged in June when BLM Deputy Director Henri Bisson suggested euthanizing 6,000 animals to bring the herds to healthy levels.

None of the animals Bisson wanted to kill was in Utah, where more than 3,000 horses live across 2.7 million acres of public land. Bisson backed off the proposal in August, saying he would wait for the GAO study and next week's meeting of the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Council in Reno, Nev.

But an official with a national wild horse and burro advocacy group said Monday the BLM's approach was fundamentally unsound environmentally and legally because the agency has neither properly maintained the herds' genetic diversity nor monitored the range to determine whether the animals are causing damage.

The GAO found the price tag for keeping horses in centers for future adoption or other means has jumped from $7 million in 2000 to $21 million in 2007. This year, those costs could eat up three-quarters of the BLM's wild-horse and burro program budget.

The GAO also said the BLM has resisted selling wild horses with no limitations on their use afterward, including slaughter, "due to concerns about public and congressional reaction to the large-scale slaughter of thousands of healthy horses." Such resistance is illegal under current law, the GAO noted.

In 2004, Congress amended the 1971 law to allow "excess animals" to be sold for slaughter or other commercial use.

BLM national spokesman Tom Gorey said the report was correct when it said the BLM has limited options for dealing with unadopted and unsold animals.

"The GAO recommends - and the Department of the Interior and the BLM agree - that the bureau should initiate discussions with Congress on addressing the BLM's noncompliance with these directives in the 1971 law, as amended," Gorey said.

But Karen Sussman, president of the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros - the South Dakota nonprofit group that initiated and helped push through the 1971 law - said Monday that the BLM has acted illegally by rounding up the horses without first determining whether they had damaged the range.

Sussman said a 1990 GAO report recommended that the BLM also curtail the number of livestock on the range. "If you want to improve habitat," she said, "you need to remove livestock."

The 6,000 horses that would have been slaughtered under Bisson's proposal are held in grassy pastures in the Midwest between Kansas and Oklahoma, Sussman said.

She criticized the federal determination that Utah's maximum horse population should be 2,151 across 2.7 million acres of BLM and other lands, where 3,096 horses now live.

The real way the census should be managed is for genetic diversity, Sussman said.

Every herd should have 150 breeding adults; but under the BLM's culling process, only about a quarter of all the herds have that breeding capability.

Highlights from the horse report

  • The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has removed 74,000 wild horses and burros from the range since 2001, but only 46,400 have been adopted or sold.

  • As of June, the BLM had more than 30,000 animals in holding areas, up from 9,807 in 2001.

  • Utah has 3,096 horses in 21 horse-management areas across 2.7 million acres of BLM and other lands. The BLM says the maximum population should be 2,151. (As of Oct. 27, the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Center in Herriman held 320 animals.)
Source: Government Accountability Office