Official Department of Interior Response to Protect Wild Horses and Burros; Reform Inhumane Interior Department Management Program That Wastes Tax Dollars

Humane Care and Management of America’s Wild Horses and Burros

By Bob Abbey

Thank you for your petition regarding the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) Wild Horse and Burro Program.

The BLM shares your commitment to the humane care and management of wild horses and burros. As described by Congress under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, these animals are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West. The BLM's goal is to protect and effectively manage these iconic animals for current and future generations of Americans.

The BLM performs gathers of wild horses and burros in response to the annual herd growth rate. In many cases, the ecosystems of public rangelands are not able to withstand the impacts from overpopulated herds, which include soil erosion, sedimentation of streams, and damage to wildlife habitat. The 1971 Act (Section 1333) mandates that once the Interior Secretary "determines...that an overpopulation exists on a given area of the public lands and that action is necessary to remove excess animals, he shall immediately remove excess animals from the range so as to achieve appropriate management levels."

The BLM estimates that approximately 38,500 wild horses and burros (about 33,000 horses and 5,500 burros) are roaming on BLM-managed rangelands in 10 Western states based on the latest data available, compiled as of February 28, 2011. Wild horses and burros have virtually no natural predators and their herd sizes can double about every four years.

The estimated current free-roaming population exceeds by nearly 12,000 the number that the BLM has determined can exist in balance with other public rangeland resources and uses. (The appropriate management level is approximately 26,600.) Off the range, there are more than 41,000 other wild horses and burros that are fed and cared for at short-term corrals and Midwestern long-term pastures. In the most recently completed fiscal year (2011), holding costs accounted for $43.2 million (57 percent) out of a total enacted Wild Horse and Burro Program budget of $75.8 million. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), in an October 2008 report, found the program's mounting holding costs to be unsustainable.

As a result of the GAO report, and because of feedback like yours, the BLM is preparing to publish a new wild horse and burro management strategy as part of its ongoing effort to reform the Wild Horse and Burro Program and put it on a sustainable and cost-effective track. The new strategy emphasizes population growth suppression techniques, including fertility control; promotes public-private eco-sanctuaries to hold excess wild horses removed from Western public rangelands; seeks to boost adoptions by making more trained wild horses available to the public; and establishes a comprehensive animal welfare program. The BLM developed the new strategy after actively soliciting input from both the public and the agency's Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board on how to best ensure the health of America's wild horses and burros, both on and off the range.

The BLM will move forward with this strategy and make any necessary adjustments after the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) completes a two-year study that has been commissioned by the BLM. The NAS study, to be finished by 2013, will recommend how the BLM should proceed in light of the latest scientific research. During the time the NAS study is carried out, the BLM plans to gather and remove from Western public rangelands approximately 7,600 excess animals annually from Fiscal Year 2012 through FY 2014– down from planned removals of more than 10,000 a year – to keep the overall on-the-range wild horse and burro population at 38,000 to 39,000 during this timeframe. (Some additional gathers may be necessary in emergency situations.)

It is important to note that the strategy also includes a comprehensive animal welfare program through which the BLM will strengthen humane animal care and handling practices. The standards set by this program will apply to BLM employees and volunteers, along with contractors who gather wild horses and burros from the range and those who feed and care for these animals in short-term or long-term holding facilities.

For more information please visit the BLM's page here.

Bob Abbey is Director of the Bureau of Land Management