Salazar proposes new wild horse management program
October 16, 2009
The sustainability of the current wild horse and burro management practices is at such an inadequate level that the Senate Appropriations Committee has warned the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that current gathering and holding costs have risen beyond the point that can be continued and has directed the BLM to prepare a long-term plan for the wild horse/burro program. The Government Accountability Office also found the program to be at a “critical crossroads,” and affirmed the need to control the holding costs of horses/burros being held off the range and recommended the BLM work with Congress to find a better way to manage the increasing number of unadoptable horses/burros.
The Bureau removes thousands of wild horses and burros from the public rangelands each year and then offers them for adoption. There has been a sharp decline in adoptions in recent years, however, so the surplus horses and burros are maintained by the BLM and not returned to the rangelands.
The BLM now maintains nearly 32,000 wild horses and burros in holding facilities, including 9,500 in expensive, short-term corrals. In Fiscal Year 2008, the cost of holding and maintaining these animals exceeded $27 million, or 75 percent of the 2008 funding level of $36.2 million for the entire wild horse and burro program (that figures out to over $6,500/head). In the 2009 Fiscal Year, which ended Sept. 30, holding costs were approximately $29 million, or about 70 percent of the total program’s budget of $40.6 million (and if the numbers are the same as 2008, that is $6,988/head).
In light of this dilemna, Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, in a letter dated Oct. 7, 2009, proposed a national solution to restore the health of the wild horses herds and the rangelands that support them by creating a cost-efficient and sustainable management program that includes the possible creation of wild horse preserves on the more productive grasslands of the Midwest (such as Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee) and East. In the letter, Salazar stated, “More than 33,000 wild horses live in 10 western states. Unfortunately, arid western lands and watersheds cannot support a population this large without significant damage to the environment.”
“The current path of the wild horse and burro program is not sustainable for the animals, the environment or the taxpayer,” said Salazar in the letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and eight other key members of Congress with jurisdiction over wild horse issues. Salazar continued, “…proposing to develop new approaches that will require bold efforts from the Administration and from Congress to put this program on a more sustainable track, enhance the conservation for this iconic animal, and provide better value for the taxpayer.”
Director of the Interior’s BLM, Bob Abbey, commended the Secretary and said, “The proposals we are unveiling today represent a forward-looking, responsive effort to deal with the myriad challenges facing our agency’s wild horse and burro program.” He added, “We owe the American taxpayer a well-run, cost-effective program.”
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The key element of the Secretary’s plan, designed to address concerns raised by the Senate Appropriations Committee and Government Accountability Office, would designate a new set of wild horse preserves across the nation. In view of the limited forage and water in the west, due to climate, drought, and fire, Salazar said the lands acquired by the BLM and/or its partners “would provide excellent opportunities to celebrate the historical significance of wild horses, showcase these animals to the American public, and serve as natural assets that support local tourism and economic activity.”
The horses placed on these preserves would be non-reproducing, therefore easier to manage due to no natural population increases. Management of these preserves would either be directly by the BLM or through cooperative agreements between the BLM and private, non-profit organization or other partners and would reduce the Bureau’s off-the-range holding costs.
Another aspect of the proposal would be to showcase specific herds on the public lands in the West that warrant distinct recognition which would generate eco-tourism for nearby rural communities.
Balancing wild horse and burro population growth rates with public adoption demand is also addressed in the letter. This would involve slowing reproduction rates on Western public rangelands through aggressive use of fertility control, active management of sex ratios on the range, and perhaps the introduction of non-reproducing herds in some of the existing Herd Management Areas in 10 Western states. The new approach would also include making adoption rules more flexible where appropriate.
Salazar noted that his proposals are subject to Congressional approval and appropriations, and that he and Director Abbey look forward to working with members of Congress to better manage the wild horse and burro population.
Since this proposal comes from within the administration, it may have a chance of gaining the momentum needed to turn the current crisis around. Like all things in Washington, DC, it will take time, but at least there has been a proposal made that is feasible and shows promise of actually dealing with the issue at hand, instead of just manipulating the facts and figures to make it look as if something was done.