The BLM’s deadly plan for America’s wild mustangs

There are an estimated 33,000 free-roaming horses and burros on the BLM"s 199 herd management areas.©

The image of the American west has always been one of scenic grasslands and deserts, complete with wild, free-roaming mustangs. Mustangs were seen as poetry in motion—the embodiment of untamed spirit. Now, they’re considered a costly nuisance. Mustang numbers are up, and they are overgrazing and damaging vegetation, leading to malnutrition and starvation of the horses. Damage to native vegetation also results in increased soil erosion and lower water quality. How has the graceful, free-spirited mustang suddenly become a destructive, invasive species?

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) currently maintains a herd of around 33,000 wild horses and burros in 199 herd management areas. The population exceeds their targeted capacity of 27,300, which is based on the estimated carrying capacity of the land. The BLM reports that the herd can double in size every four years and now has more horses than they can handle.

To keep the population within reasonable numbers the BLM removes "excess" individuals and places them in short-term or long-term holding facilities. The horses in short-term holding are then adopted out or sold at auction. As of June 2008, the BLM had more than 30,000 horses and burros in holding facilities and the cost of the program is expected to exceed $26 million. The number of adoptions has dropped significantly from 5,701 in 2005 to 4,772 in 2007, and, with the increasing cost of fuel and feed, the number is expected to decline further.

Tom Gorey, Senior Public Affairs Specialist for the BLM, estimates the budget "will stay static at $37 million and will not be sufficient enough to cover the costs of the program in the future."

The Killing Option

With the horse population doubling every four years, the BLM is now considering euthanasia.©

The BLM, who was charged with protecting the mustangs in 1976, is now planning a euthanasia program to maintain the size of the mustang herds under their limited budget. Advocacy groups, such as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) are appalled at the possibility of a euthanasia program. Holly Hazard, the Chief Innovations Officer for the HSUS, speaks for the organization when she says "We are outraged that anyone would suggest the mismanagement of the [BLM"s] herds be placed on the backs of the horses."

Hazard says, "The BLM needs to work together with the Humane Society, other organizations and the public." She believes that the BLM should work to enhance the image of these horses. "The public must know that they are adoptable to people who understand the special challenges they bring," she says. "We can, in the short-run, have a more effective adoption program. The BLM must soften their position on the number of individuals allowed on the range because the numbers are not based on hard science." She believes the herd capacity should be raised 20%, which would put less pressure on the BLM to round up the herds as often as they do.

Control & Complications

The HSUS is currently involved in a large-scale field study with the BLM to determine the best way to distribute contraception to the mares. Hazard explains the program "over the next five years will involve long-range darting and the use of water or other attractants to keep the horses in a specific area. I’ve actually seen and done this, and if we’re a little more patient and have more people in the field who know where the horses are, we could administer the contraception on a more regular basis without traumatizing or injuring the horses by rounding them up."

Gorey says that the BLM supports the research and is working with the Humane Society, but explains that there are three main problems with the vaccine: "One problem is that it is only in an experimental phase and the vaccine has not be approved by the FDA. Secondly, we can’t go around darting mares like they do in Assateague because [the range’s actual land use] is 29 million acres, so it’s not viable to approach mares in that setting. Lastly the idea of returning the captured mares to a herd that is already overpopulated doesn’t make sense."

The HSUS with other organizations and activists doesn’t support euthanasia as a solution to the BLM’s problem. "To get out of this [problem] now must be a long-term, eight to ten year, solution," Hazard says. "By the end of it they will have a program that is stable, humane and in the best interest of the horses." The program will be a short-term solution, and Gorey was not forthcoming with explaining what will happen if and when this problem arises again. Instead, he offered an ideal circumstance where he hopes that "the animals that are pulled off the range will match a sufficient demand in the adoption market, so all the animals taken off the range are placed somewhere else, leaving an appropriate manageable level free on the range."

CONTACTS: The Humane Society of the U.S.; The Bureau of Land Management

JENNIFER SANTISI is an editorial intern at E.