SALT LAKE CITY — The Bureau of Land Management recently released an updated report regarding a program aimed to relocate wild horses and burros populations, which officials say are continuing to grow at an alarming rate.
However, a national wild horse advocacy group is blasting a federal plan to round up additional horses this year.
Officials from the federal agency wrote in the May 8 report there were 95,000 wild horses as of the beginning of March, which far exceeds the 27,000 wild horses and burros it believes the land can sustainably hold. That number continues to rise. In fact, the bureau projects there will be 2.8 million horses on the land by 2040 at the current population growth rate.
"They can grow pretty rapidly — 15-20% a year, which means a herd can double in size every four to five years, triple every six years … and it can overwhelm the resources that are available to them out on the mostly in the high desert," said Jason Lutterman, spokesperson for the agency’s Wild Horses and Burro Program.
This year, the bureau expects to remove a little more than 11,000 horses and burros from public land in western states, including Utah. The process has already begun, and thousands of more animals are expected to be captured this summer. The horses are gathered and brought to a short-term off-range corral facility where they are prepared for domestic life and offered for adoption, Lutterman said.
He explained that animals not adopted typically go to pastures in the Midwest, where will spend the remainder of their lives there. There are about another 50,000 animals in those facilities and the report states that the BLM anticipates upwards of 220,000 animals in the next decade.
But the process of removing the animals from public land, which first began in the 1970s, has also gained criticism. The American Wild Horse Campaign blasted the bureau’s May 8 report, calling the use of helicopter roundups inhumane because the roundups happen during the hot summer months and some of the horses are run to death by helicopters. They also contend the process will only add to the number of animals "warehoused in holding pens at a staggering cost to American taxpayers."
"The BLM is doubling down on the most outdated, inhumane, and ineffective approach to wild horse management possible. If Congress doesn’t act to halt it, the BLM’s newest mass roundup initiative will push the federal Wild Horse and Burro Program over a fiscal cliff, resulting in the mass slaughter and destruction of America’s cherished wild horse and burro herds," said Suzanne Roy, campaign director of the advocacy group, in a prepared statement.
The Cloud Foundation, another advocacy group that also opposes the bureau’s long-term plan, argues the plan "clearly states there is no guarantee whether there will be sufficient government-holding facilities to accommodate the huge increase in captured horses or what the actual costs will be for warehousing 220,000 horses."
Wild horses have roamed the west for many decades. Domesticated horses were introduced to the landscape by settlers and explorers; as they did, some horses were released and became wild, Lutterman said. Populations can be found all over the western U.S. There are 19 horse management areas in Utah with more than 2.5 million acres of space, according to the BLM.
But since horses aren’t in any way indigenous to the area they don’t have many natural predators, which has allowed the populations to grow at such a fast rate. The bureau’s program handling the wild creatures began nearly 50 years ago; since 1976, about 15,600 animals have been rounded up in Utah alone.
Lutterman said the practices are necessary to keep populations close to what the land can handle. In most cases, a helicopter is used to lure an animal to a trap, where they are then checked by a veterinarian and given vaccinations before heading to mostly Midwestern ranches. The agency also uses water traps in some cases.
"We are over about 3½ times overpopulated on public rangelands, which is leading to issues in terms of land degradation over grazing areas, damaging really critical ecosystems, like riparian areas which are so important to the high desert ecosystems and all the wildlife populations that those systems support as well," he said.
He added that horses and burros may end up in areas with few water resources, which harms animal health. They also could end up on private property or highways.
In addition to the practice of rounding up horses, wild horse advocates also argue the target population of 27,000 animals on lands was created with "no basis in science," citing a finding from the National Academy of Sciences. A 2013 report from the academy found that there wasn’t much information provided to show how that number was reached, which could make it "open to multiple interpretations."
The removals are still planned in the meantime. Of the 11,320 animals to be removed this year, about 5,000 will be moved in the coming months. Those animals will be taken to off-range corrals to be offered for adoption, Lutterman said. The BLM said more than 6,000 horses have been adopted from those ranges since it began a new adoption incentive program last year, which provides $1,000 to anyone who adopts an untrained horse.
Given the land needs, which include the wild horses and other wildlife that live on the public land, Lutterman said that officials have determined it’s necessary to round up horses to keep populations low.
"It's really important to try and keep those populations at the level that the land can support so that it's sustainable and long,” Lutterman said, “and populations can live out there long term, and they aren't continually degrading the resources that they themselves need."