By Lyndsey Layton and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 8, 2009
The government plans to aggressively sterilize wild horses and transplant thousands to new public preserves in the Midwest and East as a solution to the nearly 40-year-old problem of how to manage the exploding numbers of wild horses in the West, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Wednesday.
"We have a huge problem -- out-of-control populations of wild horses and burros on our public lands," Salazar told reporters. "The problem has been growing and simmering over time, and it's time for us to do something about it that protects the horses, the public lands and the taxpayers."
With no natural predators remaining in their habitat, the wild horses and burros that roam federal land in 10 Western states have been thriving, growing from 25,000 in 1971 to 69,000 today. They compete with other wildlife and with cattle for food and water, and they have been blamed for damaging their surroundings.
The Bureau of Land Management says the range can support about 26,600 wild horses and burros. But today the free-roaming herds total about 37,000. There are another 32,000 in holding facilities.
Salazar is proposing that the federal government spend about $96 million to buy land in the Midwest and East to create two preserves that could each support 3,600 horses. It is unclear exactly where the preserves would be located. The annual operating and maintenance costs would be about $1.7 million, according to the bureau.
The secretary said he envisions that the preserves would be open to the public and that tourists would visit to see the horses, but he offered few details about how that would work.
The government intends to partner with nonprofit organizations and other private groups to create five more preserves, so that 25,000 animals would be living on preserves by 2014. All the animals would be sterilized or segregated by sex to prevent procreation.
At the same time, the government would seek to sterilize or control the reproduction of enough animals on the range so that the birthrate is 3,500 foals a year. That would equal the adoption rate of the wild horses and burros, resulting in no net growth of the wild herd. Under the proposal, the costs for the wild horse and burro program would start decreasing by 2019.
Long an American icon and inspiration for song and story, the wild horse has special protection under a 1971 law. The federal statute calls wild horses "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West" that should be "protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death." But the same law also requires the government to achieve "appropriate management levels" of roaming horses so that they do not overwhelm federal lands -- and that is the part that has been vexing government officials.
Since the 1980s, the federal government has hired cowboys to round up some excess horses and place them in holding facilities, where they await adoption by the public. But the adoption rate has slowed along with the economy. In fiscal 2008, the government placed 3,706 horses into private adoption, compared with 5,701 in fiscal 2005.
The number of horses and burros in holding facilities is now about 32,000 -- nearly the same number roaming wild on the range. Meanwhile, the cost to taxpayers for feed and care of the animals in holding facilities keeps climbing. The budget for the wild horse and burro program rose from $39.2 million in fiscal 2007 to more than $50 million last year.
A year ago, officials at the Bureau of Land Management suggested they might turn to euthanasia -- causing an immediate outcry from members of Congress, horse lovers and animal advocates. Madeleine Pickens, the wife of billionaire T. Boone Pickens and a racehorse breeder, jumped into the conflict and announced her intention to buy a ranch and adopt 30,000 horses. She created a nonprofit foundation and a Web site, at http://www.madeleinesmustangs.org, and signed a letter of intent to buy land in northeast Nevada. But her negotiations with the government have sputtered over her request for annual federal stipends to care for the horses and the use of some federal lands for grazing.
Pickens said Wednesday that she was unsure what Salazar's announcement means for her project. "It's pretty vague," she said, referring to the government's plan. "The good news is they're going to do something, which is more than nothing."
Salazar's proposal must be approved by Congress, and a key lawmaker voiced his support Wednesday.
"I applaud Secretary Salazar's commitment to reversing the historic trend of treating wild horses like a nuisance and subjecting them to long-term storage and slaughter," said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va), who had criticized Interior's handling of the issue in the past. "We have been fighting this battle for a long time now and will continue to do so until the BLM fulfills its duty under the law to protect America's free-roaming wild horses and burros."
Some animal advocates, including Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society, praised the plan, but others decried it. American Horse Defense Fund President Shelley Sawhook said it would be costly and only amounted to "a stop-gap measure."
"I'm skeptical of the entire thing," Sawhook said. She blamed the current predicament on government officials having taken 19 million acres of federal habitat away from the horses and burros. "That needs to be returned to the horses," she said. "If that 19 million acres were still there, there would be no need for holding pens. There would be no need for relocation."