Few images evoke the romantic spirit of the West like a herd of wild horses galloping under a cloudless sky.
But this romance is a heartbreaker.
More wild horses are being held in captivity at taxpayer expense than can be found in the wild.
This was not the intent of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. It assigned the Bureau of Land Management the job of managing the animals on public lands.
Ever since, disagreements about how many chewing mouths the range could support have been intense. Public-land ranchers resent the competition for forage these wild animals represent.
Critics of how the BLM manages the horses and burros have long argued that the program was more about rounding up and removing animals than allowing them to roam free. The BLM has argued that allowing the horses and burros to remain on lands where there are no natural predators would lead to population explosions and result in starvation scenarios the public would not tolerate.
Taxpayers put up plenty for a program that pleases few.
The budget for the BLM program ballooned from $20 million in 2000 to $75 million in 2012. The primary cost is to hold the animals, and the feds say they are running out of space. Some animals are adopted, but demand does not keep up with the supply of captured horses and burros.
The BLM estimates 40,605 wild horses and burros roam BLM land in 10 Western states, or 14,000 more than are compatible with other uses of the land, such as public-land ranching. More than 49,000 animals are held in captivity.
A report released by the National Academy of Sciences in June points out that removing horses is an ineffective means of population control because the animals that remain reproduce faster.
Birth-control measures — including a plan to round up, surgically spay and return the animals to the wild — have also been met with criticism by horse advocates. But the National Academy report recommends increased use of a fertility-control vaccine.
The BLM is in a tough spot. It needs guidance and hard science to improve this program to accomplish the law’s goal of preserving wild horses and burros.
In June, Arizona Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva, long a champion of the horses, and 29 other House members sent a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell demanding a review of the program. His office says there has been no response.
The BLM’s National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board will hold a three-day meeting in Virginia beginning next Monday to discuss the National Academy report and “issues relating to the management, protection and control” of wild horses and burros.
Comments can be sent by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Put Advisory Board Comment in the subject line.
Keeping wild horses and burros on public land requires a cool, well-informed look at the facts, as well as a leavening of compassion and respect for the heritage of the West.