ST. GEORGE — It has been said that horses are the projection of people’s dreams about themselves – strong, powerful and noble. The majestic animal has roamed the west since the Spanish first introduced them to the New World in the 1500s.
The horse has allowed men to explore the continent, manage vast ranches and wrangle herds of cattle.
Fast forward a half a millennia and the horses the Spanish left behind have become a political hot potato as they have become habituated to the wild and now are considered feral animals.
The solution to how to manage the wild herds seems elusive.
An attempt to come up with an answer is the Federal Wild Horse and Burro Program, which was born out of a 1971 congressional action on managing and protecting these animals on public land.
Taking the brunt of the criticism from what some view as an overzealous and bungled approach at enforcing the law is the Bureau of Land Management.
What many don’t understand, said Jason Lutterman, spokesperson for BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program, is that his agency is strained under the weight of the program.
“We do have to manage for wild horse population growth of between 15-20% annually, which means they can double their population size in four years,” Lutterman said.
“Up until now, we’ve removed horses from overpopulated herds and try to find good homes from them through our Adoption Program. But, beginning in about 2000, adoption numbers have dropped from around 8,000 to 10,000 a year to about 2,500.
“We are faced with an exponentially growing population on the range with really nowhere to put the excess horses, but into our off-range facilities, which is not a sustainable action for the program,” Lutterman added.
At more than $2 billion needed to house and care for the current level of wild horses corralled in government pens for the remainder of their lifetime, many ask if continuing the status quo is fiscally responsible?
In response, Congress in 2015 appropriated funding for BLM to spend up to $11 million on research aimed at curbing wild horse population growth.
The money funded 21 research projects aimed at developing new tools for managing healthy horses and burros on healthy rangelands, including effective ways to slow the population growth rate of the animals and reduce the need to remove animals from the public lands.
Currently, the BLM administers Porcine Zona Pellucida Vaccine (PZP) as its preferred method of birth control on wild horse populations.
However, this method has come under fire for not being reliable.
Research conducted by the wildlife contraception non-profit Science and Conservation Center suggests that even though the BLM has applied PZP to wild mares throughout the west, the vaccine must be administered to a large number of mares to reach a 90% effectiveness rate.
According to the BLM’s Environmental Assessment, attempts would be made to then apply annual booster shots to all previously treated animals during the length of the project.
It cost approximately $30 a shot and this does not include the personnel and time to find the animals, but BLM must weigh this against the costs of placing burros in holding facilities.
Leading research has indicated that it takes eight years of application to successfully reduce wild horse population growth.
PZP’s success is “unpredictable” because of a number of factors including the age of the animal, individual animal response and mandatory follow-up boosters.
BLM estimates there are more than 65,000 wild horses and burros on federal land in 10 states, 2.5 times more than the range can support. However, government corrals and leased pastures are maxed out at more than 47,000 wild horses and burros with taxpayers picking up the tab of about $50,000 per head over the course of the animal’s lifetime.
In Utah, the Delta Wild Horse and Burro Facility functions as a preparation center for wild horses and burros gathered throughout the state. It is also used as an overflow facility for wild horses and burros from the National Wild Horse and Burro Program.
The facility was built in 1976 as the primary holding facility for wild horses and burros gathered in Utah and as an overnight stop for animals being shipped to facilities in the east.
In 2002, the BLM purchased four adjoining acres to the Delta Facility and in 2003 expanded its holding capacity from 100 to 300 head.
To encourage more adopters to give a wild horse or burro a good home, the Adoption Incentive Program provides up to $1,000 to adopt an untrained wild horse or burro from the BLM.
The goal of the program is to reduce BLM’s recurring costs to care for unadopted and untrained wild horses and burros while helping to enable the BLM to confront a growing overpopulation of wild horses and burros on fragile public rangeland.
The Adoption Incentive Program allows qualified adopters to receive up to $1,000 when adopting an eligible wild horse or burro. Under this program, adopters are eligible to receive:
- $500 within 60 days of the adoption of an untrained wild horse and burro.
- $500 within 60 days of titling the animal.
The incentive is available for all untrained animals that are eligible for adoption, including animals at BLM facilities, off-site events and on the online corral. A $25 fee applies at the time of adoption.
For now, removal from rangeland and contraception seems to be the only avenue for controlling wild horse and burro herds.
“I think the solutions are there, we just haven’t found them yet,” Lutterman said.
For now, it remains a conundrum to BLM on how to manage a wild horse population that is increasing on the range and in captivity.
“Most everyone agrees regarding this issue there is a lot of emotions and accusations, but I think we all have the same goal in common and that’s to have healthy horses on healthy rangeland. But, we have different ideas on how to get there,” Lutterman added.
“The question is how do we manage wild horse populations so that there are enough resources and that they live in balance with other uses of our public lands?”
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