Source: Denver Post by Allison Sherry
WASHINGTON — New Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Tuesday that she is still undecided about how to handle a burgeoning wild horse and burro population that is eating more than half the horse budget at the BLM and sparking outrage among wild horse advocates.
Jewell said in an interview with The Denver Post that she is awaiting a National Academy of Sciences study, slated to come out in early June, to determine how best to handle the horses.
"It's going to help identify what's the sustained capacity of our public lands to handle our wild horses, what is the effectiveness of things like birth control methodology to try and deal with the issue," Jewell said Tuesday. "So we appreciate their help and we look forward to that response."
There are more wild horses and burros roaming federally managed rangelands today than there were in 1971, when Congress passed the landmark Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act that protects these iconic animals.There are 11,000 more than the range is supposed to currently sustain and another 51,000 holding in pricey short- and long-term corrals and pastures.
Under former Secretary Ken Salazar, a former Colorado senator, the Bureau of Land Management's budget to deal with wild horses almost doubled — from $40 million in 2009 to almost $80 million in 2013. That isn't money borrowed from other Interior Department programs, but additional federal funds allocated to hold wild horses to feed and house them, which can cost, per horse, between $1.49 to $4.96 per day.
This increase in spending came despite warnings from the General Accountability Office as early as 2008 that the wild horse program was on an unsustainable path and needed to be addressed. But in the years under Salazar, nothing really changed — except the problem has grown bigger and more expensive. Now the new Secretary is pinning hopes on a National Academy of Sciences report set to come out in early June for guidance.
BLM officials describe the federal government's position with wild horses as a "rock and a hard place." The 1971 law compels them to manage wild horses and burros on public lands and to protect them from abuse and death. But the horses are reproducing at quick speed — the populations can double every four years. And wild horse adoptions are at an all-time low, from 5,701 in 2005 to just over 2,500 last year.
Humanely putting down horses has not been an option since the mid-1980s. Congress doesn't fund programs to kill healthy horses, plus BLM officials do not believe there is a public appetite for sending horses off to slaughter.So federal officials feel like the only option is to pay private ranchers to hold them in pastures — a line item that consumes more than half the federal wild horse budget.
Wild horse advocates from across the country have long been critical of the way the Interior Department handled the wild horse and burro populations. They want more horses in free range than in holding cells and they believe the government should invest more in birth control. With the incoming Secretary, advocates have launched a lobbying effort on Capitol Hill to push for change this year.
"The wild horse program is at a crossroads right now," said Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. "There are more in captivity than are free in the wild. The holding facilities are full, it's at a crisis point and we're hoping Secretary Jewell will pay attention." At Jewell's confirmation hearing, four senators, two Democrats and two Republicans, questioned the Department's handling of the wild horse program, saying the BLM has consistently failed to live up to its own management goals.
At that March 7 hearing, Jewell said she was "not familiar with the specifics" of the BLM's horse budget and she looked forward to working on "effective and ecologically sustainable policies" for managing the program. The GAO pointed out five years ago that the BLM did not have a consistent way of determining how many horses can be managed on a parcel of land — something horse advocates say is key to solving the problem. "They have set unnaturally low levels, some say there are 50 horses and 900 cows and if there are 56 horses, they'll say the horses are over-populating the range," Roy said. "There are fewer than 32,000 horses on BLM land and that's not very many horses on 26.6 million acres."
Officials say they hope the National Academy of Sciences help determine a better, more consistent, system.