Veterinarian: Well-Meaning Public Making It More Difficult And Expensive To Deal With Wild Horse Issue

The problem of what to do with thousands of wild horses and burros that roam through Western states continues to present a challenge for the Bureau of Land Management, and one veterinarian said a well-meaning public isn’t helping.

“I think one of the biggest problems is the American public views horses as a symbol of the West,” said Dr. Tom Lenz at this week’s American Horse Council virtual conference. “They almost have a mystic quality to people. So, most of the public’s perception of how the horses should be managed is based on emotion and very little understanding of how these horses interact with the range and wildlife and other animals. They have a significant impact on Congress, which then limits the BLM.”

Lenz is a longtime veterinarian, diplomate of the American College of Theriogenologists, past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners and has chaired the AAEP’s Welfare Committee, as well as the welfare committees of the American Horse Council, Professional Rodeo Cowboys’ Association, and the American Veterinary Medical Association. He provided an update to American Horse Council conference attendees in his capacity as a member of the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board.

The question of what to do with wild horses and burros has been in the headlines for years, with wild horse advocates expressing concerns about techniques the government has used to control the populations thus far and seeking to limit the number of horses that may be rounded up by the government each year. Critics of the BLM question whether the agency overestimates the number of horses on public lands and points to the large number of cattle allowed to graze on public lands, competing with the horses for resources.

Lenz said the BLM believes an appropriate number of free-ranging horses and burros would be about 27,000 animals. The government’s current population estimates have 95,114 animals on the range as of March of this year. That doesn’t count horses on non-BLM federal, state, or tribal lands, which could number more than another 100,000.

Critics of the BLM have also raised questions about the agency’s figures on population growth, which Lenz characterized as “exponential.” Lenz presented an example — in February 2016, 2,700 horses were counted in a given herd management area. Two years later, 1,400 horses were gathered and removed from that space; the number of foals born in 2016, 2017, and 2018 completely offset the round-up, leaving the number in that herd management area at 2,700 in May 2018.

The U.S. Geological Survey indicates herd sizes for wild horses are increasing at rates of 12 to 36 percent annually, which means they’re growing faster than the amount of forage and water available to them. Lenz said recent round-ups of horses have taken place because a particular herd was discovered starving in its home base. In times of drought, wild horses are known to move into towns, cities, private land, even golf courses in search of food and water — creating safety hazards for humans and for themselves.

So far, Lenz said efforts to reduce the population to manageable levels have been ineffective. The BLM does use a pelleted, feed-through form of contraceptive, but hasn’t been able to get it to enough horses to produce an appreciable impact. There are contraceptive vaccines available for horses, but they have to be administered annually and while many wild horses are tolerant of people, they often won’t come close enough to be vaccinated via dart more than once. Chemical or surgical vasectomies have not been effective for stallions; intrauterine devices are effective for mares, but must be inserted while the mare isn’t pregnant — a challenge, as most female wild horses are pregnant by the age of two.

BLM agents have even tried removing stallions from herds, but has found that besides the potential welfare implications of disrupting a herd’s social structure, mares end up being bred by stallions from other bands.

Round-ups are still the agency’s primary method of population reduction. On average, Lenz said the BLM removes 6,000 animals from the range a year, though the last two years it rounded up slightly more than that. The problem comes in when those horses don’t find adoptive homes after they’re taken off the range. A huge chunk of the BLM’s budget goes into warehousing horses in long-term holding areas if they aren’t good candidates for adoption or don’t attract any interest from the public. Lenz said horses in long-term holding facilities can live well past the age of 20 and end up costing the Bureau an average of $48,000 per head. A horse who is adopted within two and a half years may cost the Bureau $8,000. There are 50,020 animals in short and long-term holding pastures and corrals currently.

Adoptions were up last year — to 7,276 horses instead of the usual 3,400 or so — thanks in part to an adoption incentive program started by the BLM which pays adopters $1,000 for taking a wild horse or burro. Half the money is paid when the horse is picked up, and the other half is paid six months later after a representative has inspected the horse in its new home and verified it is being properly cared for.

Moving forward, Lenz is hopeful the BLM can get the population of wild horses under control by making its budget more efficient. The new goal will be to gather 18,000 to 20,000 horses annually (three times more than the current average), distribute pelleted contraception to between 3,500 and 9,000 horses each year and transition 6,000 to 7,000 horses to private care. The BLM will also be looking to identify partner organizations that can house 18,000 to 20,000 for lifetime care, removing existing financial burdens from the agency’s books and allowing it to focus on population control instead of caring for warehoused horses.

Ultimately, Lenz said, these initiatives will make for a better life for wild horses and burros — especially if it means fewer of them will be out on the range.

“I think the problem we have today is that the public, through Congress, is managing the horses, rather than the BLM managing them through scientists,” Lenz said. “That’s what’s got us to where we are today.”

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