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Feds to Scale Back Wild Horse Roundups, Increase Adoptions

Reform program aims to increase birth control, strengthen humane animal care and handling

After a yearlong review, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is changing the way it manages wild horses on public lands—reducing the number of roundups and increasing both birth control and adoptions, the agency said.

BLM Director Bob Abbey announced the reform proposal on Thursday following a yearlong public process in which more than 9,000 comments were received and reviewed. The announcement comes a week after the House approved a cut of $2 million to the agency's budget to protest the wild horse roundups. The program's annual cost has tripled over the past decade, to $66 million.

The goal is to return the population of wild horses and burros to a healthy sustainable number through the new reform.

In a media teleconference on February 24, Abbey said the agency will reduce roundup numbers from about 10,000 a year to 7,600, unless drought or other emergency factors require more horses to be removed.

The BLM has commissioned the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to review previous wild-horse management studies and make recommendations on how it should proceed in light of the latest scientific research. The NAS review is scheduled to be finished in early 2013.

The BLM also proposes to increase the number of mares treated with birth control from 500 in 2009 to a target of 2,000 in each of the next two years during the NAS study, pending sufficient budget allocations. The agency’s ultimate goal is to make various fertility control measures the primary means to maintain healthy population levels, Abbey said, adding that BLM intends to work closely with the Humane Society of the United States to implement and monitor this expanded effort.

“Ultimately, the actions we’re taking and those that we intend to take are not only to improve the overall health of public lands and make sure we continue to have healthy and viable numbers of wild horses remain on the land, but also to bring the cost down. As we all know this program is very costly to the American public so the actions we’re taking are our best effort to improve efficiency,” Abbey said.

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There are about 35,500 free-roaming wild horses and burros—about 10,000 more than what the BLM believes to be a sustainable number, Abbey said.

The agency plans to increase the number of adoptions, which have fallen off in recent years. According to a BLM publication, Caring for America's Wild Horses and Burros: Fundamental Reforms—An Overview, “Because the adoption rate has not kept pace with the number of animals gathered from the range each year, about 41,000 unadopted horses are currently in short-term or long-term holding pastures. This has dramatically increased costs. The care of unadopted animals accounted for nearly $40 million in fiscal year 2010 Wild Horse and Burro management appropriations—almost 60 percent of the total wild horse and burro budget.”

The BLM has adopted out more than 225,000 excess wild horses and burros since 1971. Because the demand for burros exceeds the supply, the BLM is holding very few burros.

Wild horses are one of the most evocative icons of the West. They have been protected since the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act and are found in the western states of California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, Washington, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and the Dakotas. Because they are protected and have virtually no natural predators, herd sizes can double every four years, according to the BLM. In some places their populations have outgrown the land’s capacity to sustain them and they’ve come into competition with private landowners and other users of public lands. In 1976 and again in 1978, Congress amended the Wild Horses and Burros protection act to allow the BLM to use helicopters to gather “excess animals” to prevent damage to the range.

The controversy over using helicopters intensified in January when a video of an incident involving a mare that fell, got up, and was subsequently pursed by a contractor’s helicopter during a rounding up of wild horses at the Antelope Complex in Nevada went viral on the Internet. An internal BLM review found that the contract who gathers the wild horses did not violate existing BLM policy or procedures in connection with the incident.

“We’ve taken a top to bottom look at the wild horse and burro program and have come to a straightforward conclusion: we need to move ahead with reforms that build on what is working and move away from what is not,” Abbey said. “To achieve our goal of improving the health of the herds and America’s public lands, we need to enlist the help of partners, improve transparency and responsiveness in the program, and reaffirm science as the foundation for management decisions. It will take time to implement these reforms, but as a first step we are aiming to increase adoptions and broaden the use of fertility control. And while we do this, we are reducing removals while NAS helps us ensure that our management is guided by the best available science.”

An analysis of the public’s comments and a detailed proposed implementation strategy will be posted at February 28, 2011. The public is invited to review and provide comments to the BLM on this strategy through March 30, 2011. Comments should be submitted by e-mail to with “Comments on Strategy” in the subject line.