Wild horses are an iconic feature of the American West, but now on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, their future as a symbol of freedom on the frontier is threatened. 

On September 23rd, the United States Senate Committee on Appropriations passed a Fiscal Year 2020 spending bill that includes a budget increase of $35 million for the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Wild Horse and Burro Program.

It’s a contentious population control plan, involving large scale helicopter roundups and fertility management, that has animal welfare groups in fierce division. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) told the Associated Press it was a historic win for horses while critics such as Animal Wellness Action call it a “poorly disguised path to slaughter.”

An age old problem

The on range wild horse population has been a growing concern for the past 50 years. Today, there are an estimated 88,000 wild horses and burros roaming free on public land. In addition, there are over 50,000 horses in 17 off-range holding facilities across the Western USA.

The Appropriate Management Level (AML), the maximum number of horses the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has determined can exist in a healthy balance with the land, is a much smaller number—26,700, to be exact.

It’s a number that was set in 1971 by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, based on the cattle population, at a time when the wild horse population was reported to be 26,000. Some argue the AML is out of date.  

What is certain is that overpopulation has led to resource depletion on the range, impacting horses, cattle and native species. Horses in holding are a growing expense for taxpayers, each animal costing between $45,000–50,000 over the course of their lifetime. The burgeoning cost, about $50 million annually, put pressure on Congress in 2018 to consider lifting the slaughter ban. While the ban was renewed “last-minute,” the threat of employing lethal measures looms large with continued inaction.

The argument isn’t if something should be done, it’s how.

It is the best of plans, it is the worst of plans

The BLM’s proposal aims to bring the wild horse population back down to the original AML via three key strategies: large-scale round ups, fertility control and promoting adoption.

“I think this is the only adoptable solution being presented to Congress that will lead us to a non-lethal management scheme long term,” said Keisha Sedlacek of the Humane Society.

“We are asking for roundups, and while they’re not great for wild horses, you can’t do fertility control now without these kinds of gathers. You have to be able to get to the horses. The only way to have a successful fertility control program is to get to 80–90% of the mares.”

(flickr.com/Bureau of Land Management)

The hope, Sedlacek explained, is to phase out large scale removals over a period of ten years, after fertility management and adoption have stabilized the population.

Those who have signed off support on the proposal include the Humane Society, ASPCA, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and American Farm Bureau Federation. 

But Marty Irby, the Executive Director of Animal Wellness Action argues no plan at all is the only one worse than the BLM plan currently on the table.

“Our organization, along with about 70 groups, have come out in total opposition to the plan, versus just the few which support it,” contends Irby.

The nature of a helicopter roundup is inhumane, critics say, and particularly puts foals and young stock at risk, sometimes gravely. They also argue that the swell of horses in holding will only increase federal costs, opening the door to the possibility of slaughter a few years down the road when federal funds run dry.

“We believe it creates a perfect storm for the pro-slaughter coalition to say, ‘now we have all these horses in holding, we have nowhere for them to go and they’re costing millions of dollars to the federal government. It [slaughter] is the only option,'” Irby said.

flickr.com/BLM Nevada

While supporters of the plan disagree that it’s an attempt to leverage legislation towards pro-slaughter, they recognize $35 million likely won’t suffice, even if it’s successful.

“I don’t think $35 million is enough, to be honest. I think we need about $100 million per year, but this is what the Senate came up with. I think it’s not enough funding, we definitely need more,” said Ryan Yates, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“What we’re seeing is an effort to increase funding to begin a process. They cannot do this overnight, it’s going to take a lot of effort.”

Mares and the fine print

Another concern among critics is that the language surrounding fertility management is too loose in the BLM plan, and doesn’t explicitly exclude the surgical sterilization of mares, something many consider to be a crude practice.

Regarding fertility control, the BML’s 2020 Budget Justifications states:

“The Program will also continue working with academia and Federal partners to explore effective sterilization methods and to enhance existing fertility control vaccines and develop new population controls through research projects, focusing on those that have shown positive outcomes thus far; in addition to supporting several research projects aimed at developing new management tools, such as radio-tag collars and infra-red scanning for surveys.”

“At the request level, the program will continue to find ways to address the significant overpopulation, which is 206% over the statutory AML, including through sterilization methods and the use of contraceptives and the spaying and neutering of animals before returning them to the range.”

According to Sedlacek and the Humane Society, the language is intentionally not restrictive to avoid inadvertently excluding future methods or technologies over the long term, not because it promotes surgical sterilization.

“The use of surgical sterilization techniques will not be allowed as it hasn’t been proven that it can be done safely or humanely on a wild horse or burro,” stated the Humane Society in a press release.

As it stands, one of the most promising fertility control options is the PZP (porcine zona pellucida) immunocontraceptive vaccine. It can be administered by darting mares. Some argue that there’s a chance the population can be culled by relying on this method primarily.

Thinking outside the corral

So far the proposal approved in the Senate spending bill is the only one being seriously considered by the government, but it’s not the only one in existence. As the situation grows more dire, so are activists inspired to come up with different solutions.

Anthony Marr is a lifelong animal activist—best known as “Champion of the Bengal Tiger”—who has worked with countless species. Today, he’s fighting for wild horses, and his proposition is quite literally outside of the box.

That’s because it calls for releasing the 50,000 horses currently corralled, with the exception of geldings, which would be put up for adoption, then increasing the AML to 150,000 horses and relocating 12% of cattle from public to private lands to allocate enough resources for the existing horse population. A 12% decrease would equate to about 250,000 head of cattle.

Marr suggests the government subsidize ranchers who move the cattle to private land with the $60 million in funding that would be saved from closing holding facilities.

“HSUS/ASPCA plan is a very expensive and inhumane plan, which is conditional of a healthy economy. If the economy takes a nosedive, what do you think is going to happen to the horses?” he said. “Many of these horses will be in holding facilities for life, they’ll never leave.”

Despite government initiatives to encourage mustang adoption, and even a resurgence in adoption interest, only a fraction of captive horses will find homes, Marr explained.

flickr.com/BLM Nevada

“Right now it’s a one horse race with the HSUS/ASPCA plan, but we’re trying to propel the MARR-Plan onto the Congressional stage,” he said.

To that end, Marr introduced a petition, which has secured over 12,500 signatures to date, and is planning a motorcade event on November 16th in Washington D.C. alongside other groups in the coalition.

Yet, those who celebrated the $35 million investment into wild horse and burro management have been left confused and disappointed by the response.

“We are puzzled by this reaction…” said Nancy Perry, Senior Vice President of ASPCA Government Relations. “While we recognize the hesitation to support anything due to the massive challenge the agency now faces and its historic mismanagement, for the sake of our wild horses and burros, now is the time to be bold and to offer to help these horses in a tangible way.”

“We have been, and will continue to be, open to dialogue with solutions as the goal. We do not intend to suggest that this proposal is the only way forward, but it is the only actual plan that has been offered and the best solution we see, given the realities our horses face,” said Perry.

*It’s important to note that the wild horses can more accurately be described as “feral,” as they were introduced by accident during the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century. The population crisis we’re faced with today is the result of the lack of ecological checks and balances, which naturally mitigate the population of native species.*