Sunday, November 17, 2013

The BLM, Wild Horses & Burros

Dear Readers,

Since some of you have written asking about the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and their administration of the Wild Horses and Burros on America's public lands, I figured that I'd look it up and get what I could regarding this subject.

A lot of the facts below come from the National Academy of Sciences and the BLM, as well as a few more sources.

Controversy over roundups of wild horses roaming the ranges in 10 Western states is reaching a boil, with ranchers, horse advocates and even the government itself in agreement that the Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse and Bureau Program is "out of control."

The National Academy of Sciences released a review almost earlier this year on the BLM’s controversial wild horse program, saying “continuation of business-as-usual practices will be expensive and unproductive for BLM and the public it serves.”

Does the Interior Department and BLM intend to embrace the reforms included the report and if so when-- or would they not?

Since 1971, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) of the U.S. Department of the Interior has been responsible for managing the majority of free-ranging horses and burros on arid federal public lands in the western United States.

In the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, the U.S. Congress charged the BLM with the “protection, management, and control of wild free-roaming horses and burros on public lands.”

BLM was charged to protect America's Wild Horses because, the legislation noted, “wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West … and [they] are fast disappearing from the American scene.”

In the mid-20th century, horse and burro populations were affected by competing uses for the land, including livestock grazing, and by roundups, from which the animals were often sold for slaughter.

The protection provided in the 1971 legislation built on the "Wild Horse Annie Act" (P.L. 86-234), passed in 1959, which prohibited the use of motorized vehicles, including aircraft, to hunt free-ranging horses and outlawed the poisoning of watering holes on public lands.

The agency was also tasked with managing and controlling the population because of the multiple uses of public lands.

Public lands provide habitat to horses and burros, but they are also used for recreation, mining, forestry, grazing for livestock, and habitat for wildlife, including mule deer, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep.

Because of that, although the act stipulated that free-ranging horses and burros were "an integral part of the natural system of the public lands" and were to be managed "as components of the public lands"  -- it limited their range by definition to “their known territorial limits” in 1971.

Such public lands were to be "devoted principally but not exclusively to [horse and burro] welfare in keeping with the multiple-use management concept of public lands."

In addition, horses and burros were to be managed at "the minimal feasible level."

BLM management of the Wild Horse and Burros should "achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands, protect wildlife habitat, and prevent range deterioration."

That goal is been giving the BLM fits!


Free-ranging horses and burros have successfully sustained populations in North America for over 300 years, and no large predator widely overlaps with their territory.

Horses became domesticated about 4,000 to 5,000 years ago in the region of the Black Sea. Once man tamed the horse, horses performed many duties.

Horses are herd animals. They live in groups and help one another survive.

The word mustang comes from the Spanish word "mustengo," which means “ownerless beast.”

The American mustangs originally came from the Spanish stock of horses brought to America in the beginning of the 16th century.

Besides living in Western states: California, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Oregon, Colorado, Idaho, Arizona, Montana, North Dakota and New Mexico, America's Wild Horses also live on islands off the Atlantic coast, as well as on the mainland.

Small populations of horses live on Sable Island (Canada), Assateague Island (coast of Maryland and Virginia), Shackleford Island (off the coast of North Carolina) and Cumberland Islands (off the coast of Georgia).

Over 100 years ago there were an estimated 2 million mustangs roaming the range. While the number varies depending what source is used, between 42,000 and 25,000 mustangs roam the United States today.

The BLM estimates that 40,605 wild horses and burros (about 33,780 horses and 6,825 burros) are roaming on BLM-managed range-lands in 10 Western states, based on the latest data available, compiled as of February 28, 2013.

Wild horses and burros have virtually no natural predators and their herd sizes can double about every four years.

As a result, the agency must remove thousands of animals from the range each year to control herd sizes.

The estimated current free-roaming population exceeds by nearly 14,000 the number that the BLM has determined can exist in balance with other public range-land resources and uses.

The maximum appropriate management level (AML) is approximately 26,677.
Off the range, as of October 2013, there were 49,103 other wild horses and burros fed and cared for at short-term corrals and long-term pastures.

Specifically, there were 14,269 horses and 1,261 burros in corrals - for a total of 15,530 animals] and 33,573 horses in pastures.

The combined figure of 49,103 animals in holding compares to the BLM's total holding capacity of 52,909.

All wild horses and burros in holding, like those roaming Western public range-lands, are protected by the BLM under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.


In 1971, when Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, these animals were found roaming across 53.8 million acres known as Herd Areas of which 42.4 million acres were under the BLM's jurisdiction.

Today the BLM manages wild horses and burros in 179 subsets of these Herd Areas - known as Herd Management Areas - that comprise 31.6 million acres, of which 26.9 million acres are under BLM management.

"So what happened to the 'missing' 22.2 million acres on which wild horses and burros were found roaming?"

Good question. What happened to the 22.2 Million Acres?

In 1971, wild horses and burros were found roaming across 53.8 million acres of Herd Areas, of which 42.4 million acres were under the BLM's jurisdiction.

Today the BLM manages wild horses and burros in 179 subsets of these Herd Areas (known as Herd Management Areas) that comprise 31.6 million acres, of which 26.9 million acres are under BLM management.

So what happened to the 22.2 million acres on which these animals were originally found roaming?

The answer may surprise you, or make you angry!

Fact is, no specific amount of acreage was “set aside” for the exclusive use of wild horses and burros under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

The Act directed the BLM to determine the areas where horses and burros were found roaming and to manage them "in a manner that is designed to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands."

The law also stipulated in Section 1339 that "Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize the [Interior] Secretary to relocate wild free-roaming horses or burros to areas of the public lands where they do not presently exist."

Of the 22.2 million acres no longer managed for wild horse and burro use:

  • 6.7 million acres were never under BLM management.
Of the 15.5 million other acres of land under BLM management:

  • 48.6 percent (7,522,100 acres) were intermingled ("checkerboard") land ownerships or areas where water was not owned or controlled by the BLM, which made management infeasible;
  • 13.5 percent (2,091,709 acres) were lands transferred out of the BLM's ownership to other agencies, both Federal and state through legislation or exchange;
  • 10.6 percent (1,645,758 acres) were lands where there were substantial conflicts with other resource values (such as the need to protect habitat for desert tortoise);
  • 9.7 percent (1,512,179 acres) were lands removed from wild horse and burro use through court decisions; urban expansion; highway fencing (causing habitat fragmentation); and land withdrawals;
  • 9.6 percent (1,485,068 acres) were lands where no BLM animals were present at the time of the passage of the 1971 Act or places where all animals were claimed as private property.
These lands in future land-use plans will be subtracted from the BLM totals as they should never have been designated as lands where herds were found roaming; and

  • 8.0 percent (1,240,894 acres) were lands where a critical habitat component (such as winter range) was missing, making the land unsuitable for wild horse and burro use, or areas that had too few animals to allow for effective management.
And of course, the problem with laws is that they have to be followed as written, and no common sense be applied, for example: Under the 1971 Act, horses and burros may not be re-located to other public lands where they were not found roaming when the law was passed.

Pretty sad isn't it.


Congress appropriated $74.9 million to the Wild Horse and Burro Program in Fiscal Year 2012, which ended September 30, 2012.

Of that year's expenditures of $72.4 million, holding costs accounted for $43 million or 59.3 percent of the expenditures.

Gathers and removals cost $7.8 million (10.8%); adoption events cost $7.1 million (9.8%).

The $2.5 million difference between appropriations and expenditures is the amount of money “obligated” to certain activities but not actually spent.

Removing Wild Horses and Burros from the Range and Placing Animals in Adoption

To help ensure that herd sizes are in balance with other public range-land resources and uses, the BLM removed 8,255 animals (7,242 horses and 1,013 burros) from the range in Fiscal Year 2012, which ended September 30, 2012.

The Bureau placed 2,583 removed animals into private care through adoption in FY 2012 -- down from 5,701 in FY 2005.

Since 1971, when Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, the BLM has adopted out more than 230,000 horses and burros.

Population Growth-Suppression Treatments

The BLM is tasked with the job of monitoring the population size to determine where there is an excess of horses and burros - such a situation is to be identified when “a thriving natural ecological balance and multiple-use relationship” is threatened.

It is BLM’s responsibility to determine when that relationship is under threat and to remove animals to achieve balance.

Legislation allows for the destruction of old, sick, or lame animals, but excess animals removed from the range may be adopted.

By law, those for which there is no adoption demand are to be "destroyed in the most humane and cost efficient manner possible" - however, the destruction of healthy, unadopted free-ranging horses and burros has been restricted either by a moratorium instituted by the director of BLM or by the annual congressional appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior in most years.

The BLM applied 1,051 PZP (porcine zona pellucida) fertility-control treatments to mares in FY 2012.

They released 180 more stallions than mares back into herds during gather operations, for a grand total of 1,195 population growth-suppression treatments in FY 2012.

With regard to a call by advocacy groups for a moratorium on all BLM gathers of herds?

This is said to be untenable for a couple of reasons:
  • Given the fact that herds grow at an average rate of 20 percent a year and can double in size every four years.
  • The ecosystems of public range-lands are not able to withstand the impacts from overpopulated herds, which include soil erosion, sedimentation of streams, and damage to wildlife habitat.
Sale Authority

About 8,400 wild horses and burros immediately became eligible for sale under the December 2004 sale-authority law (the so-called "Burns Amendment").

This law directs the BLM to sell "without limitation" to any willing buyers animals that are either more than 10 years old or have been passed over for adoption at least three times.

Since 2005, the Bureau has sold more than 5,400 horses and burros.

It has been and remains the policy of the BLM, despite the unrestricted sales authority of the Burns Amendment, not to sell any wild horses or burros to slaughterhouses or to "kill buyers."

The proceeds from the sale of the eligible animals are used for the BLM’s wild horse and burro adoption program, as directed by Congress under the sale-authority law.

Since 1989, adoptions have seldom exceeded the number of animals removed from the range.

In the 2000s, the discrepancy neared a 2:1 ratio of animals removed to animals adopted.

Because of that, the BLM’s effort to control horse and burro numbers by removing animals from the range has led to the stockpiling of “excess” horses and burros in holding facilities.

In fiscal year 2012, more than 45,000 animals were in holding facilities, and their maintenance consumed almost 60 percent of the Wild Horse and Burro Program’s budget.

BLM’s Legal Mandates

The BLM manages the nation’s public lands for multiple uses, in accordance with the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

The Bureau manages wild horses and burros as part of this multiple-use mandate.

The BLM manages, protects, and controls wild horses and burros under the authority of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (as amended by Congress in 1976, 1978, 1996, and 2004).

This law authorizes the BLM to remove excess wild horses and burros from the range to sustain the health and productivity of the public lands.

The problem is that there are those who see America's Wild Horse as a nuisance. Those people believe that Wild Horses and Burros should be eradicated, and access to the land shut off to ranchers.  

As for the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, Section 1333 of that law mandates that once the Interior Secretary "determines...on the basis of all information currently available to him, that an overpopulation exists on a given area of the public lands and that action is necessary to remove excess animals, he shall immediately remove excess animals from the range so as to achieve appropriate management levels."

So with the majority of the horses being in the West, and most likely a political appointee who doesn't know the situation of the problems will be in charge of their destiny, one can only wonder if the remaining horses have a chance at survival.

The Wild Horse situation in America is a problem that bureaucrats in Washington won't be able to figure out.

And sadly, some of those in the field know their jobs are on the line if they voice opposition to some of the relocation and/or removal policies that will lead to the destruction of our Wild Horses.

The goal is supposed to be protecting free-ranging horses and burros while managing and controlling them to achieve a vaguely defined thriving natural ecological balance within the multiple-use mandate for public lands.

This goal has challenged the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program since its inception. And to many today, the BLM is failing to meet the challenge.

by Tom Correa

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