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Guest Opinions

BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program

Written by Neil Kornze

Editor’s Note: This letter was sent to Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) from Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director Neil Kornze in response to a letter Sen. Barrasso and 19 other Senators sent to BLM last November.

May 11, 2016

Dear Sen. John Barrasso:

Thank you for your letter, dated Nov. 4, 2015, in which you asked a number of questions about the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Wild Horse and Burro Program. The BLM shares your concerns about growing populations, herd and rangeland health, program costs and the effectiveness of past management strategies. To address these concerns, BLM is taking a number of steps, including sponsoring a significant research program focused on fertility control; transitioning horses from off-range corrals to more cost-effective pastures; working to increase adoptions with new programs and partnerships; and requesting legislative authority to allow for the immediate transfer of horses to other agencies that have a need for work animals. Despite these many initiatives, additional tools and resources are needed to bring this program onto a sustainable path. We sincerely appreciate your interest and look forward to further dialogue on these issues.

To provide proper context for the scale of the Wild Horse and Burro Program, it is helpful to note the total number of horses that are currently on the public lands, as well as the number of horses that have been moved to off-range pastures and corrals, which are usually leased from private parties. We currently estimate that there are 67,000 horses and burros on public lands in the West, which is more than twice the number of horses on the range than is recommended under BLM land use plans. It is also two-and-a-half times the number of horses and burros that were estimated to be in existence when the Wild and Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed in 1971. In addition to the animals that are currently on the public lands, the agency is paying to support nearly 50,000 horses that have been moved to off-range pastures and corrals over the past few decades.

The total lifetime cost of caring for an unadopted animal that is removes from the range is substantial. Cost for lifetime care in a corral approaches $50,000 per horse. With nearly 50,000 horses and burros already in off-range corrals and pastures, this means that without new opportunities for placing these animals with responsible owners, the BLM will spend more than a billion dollars to care for and feed these animals over the remainder of their lives. Given this vast financial commitment, the BLM is now severely limited in how many animals it can afford to remove from the range. The BLM is removing approximately 3,500 animals each year – about the same number of animals that leave the system annually through adoption, sale and natural mortality.

In 2013, the National Academy of Sciences confirmed there are no highly effective, easily delivered and affordable fertility-control methods for wild horses and burros. To address this issue, the BLM teamed-up with top universities and the U.S. Geological Survey to initiate a five-year, $11 million research program to develop better management tools; longer lasting fertility-control vaccines; and effective, safe methods for spaying and neutering wild horses. These efforts are underway. The BLM is also working to reduce the cost of caring for the animals that are cared for in open pastures, which are more cost effective than corrals.

Increasing the number of animals adopted by qualified adopters is also an important part of our strategy. We are working to boost the number of horses in training programs through partnerships with non-government organizations and prisons. Trained horses are more likely to be adopted when made available to the public. We are also exploring the possibility of providing financial assistance to interested, responsible parties to adopt some of the older horses that have already been removed from the range. Younger horses – in this case, those younger than seven years old – tend to be much more attractive to adopters. Because of the high cost of sustaining each horse in government care, we are evaluating the possibility of providing some financial support to defray the costs of care and training for individuals who give a safe home to older horses that currently have low odds of being adopted.

Further, the 2017 President’s budget includes a request for legislative authority to allow for the transfer of wild horses and burros to federal, state and local agencies that have a legitimate need for work animals. The U.S. Border Patrol, the U.S. Military and other agencies who are interested in using wild horses or burros in their work are unable to receive direct transfer of horses from the BLM. The U.S. Border Patrol, for instance, uses hundreds of wild horses for their patrol efforts, but each of those animals must be adopted by individual members of the Patrol in their personal capacity. We want to enable trusted agencies to be able to use and celebrate these remarkable animals for important public purposes.

We appreciate the opportunity to provide detailed information on this program. I have enclosed responses to the first four questions. Answers to the remaining questions will be transmitted in the very near future.

The BLM is committed to working with the Congress and stakeholders to develop a sustainable Wild Horse and Burro Program. We look forward to working with you and your colleagues to address the difficult wild horse and burro management challenges that BLM is facing. If you need additional information, please contact me at 202-208-3801, or your staff may contact Patrick Wilkinson, BLM Legislative Affairs Division Chief, at 202-912-7421. A similar response is being sent to the co-signers of your letter.

Sincerely,

Neil Kornze

Director, BLM