Scientists, policymakers, land managers, biologists, and horse advocates gathered this week to push for what they called desperately needed solutions for wild horse management. Wild horse populations keep growing while the adoption of gathered horses has not kept the same pace. The result is ecosystem damage across western states as well as threats to wildlife habitat.
“Back in the day when the Bureau of Land Management initiated the adoption program, adoptions kept up with removals, and that was the whole point, that they would remove horses from the range that they could then adopt into homes,” said Celeste Carlisle of the horse advocacy group Return To Freedom. “The horse industry is fickle. What is en vogue at one moment is not necessarily at the next.”
The BLM is offering financial incentives for wild horse adoptions, along with more fertility controls, targeted gathers, and horse relocations, approaches backed by the Humane Society of the United States, Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation, land managers, and range scientists.
“There is a problem on western rangelands, and the status quo is insufficient to address that problem.”
Delegates from more than 90 organizations from dozens of states are meeting in Reno for a wild horse management conference. They are discussing these proposals at length. Some at the meeting said that horses advocates and land managers coming together proposing solutions now is unprecedented.
“Just about everyone at this summit can agree on two things,” said Tanner Beymer of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “One, there is a problem on western rangelands, and two, the status quo is insufficient to address that problem.”
The problem requires immediate solutions, attendees said, and every possible tool must be considered. The federal government historically gathered horses in designated herd management areas when populations exceed carrying capacity, but that’s no longer a viable approach because horses populations can rapidly multiply.
“There’s not a solution that’s one-size-fits-all,” Carlisle explained.
Eureka County Commissioner and State Veterinarian J.J. Goicoechea said horse population growth, in addition to becoming public safety issues in urban areas like Reno, also poses welfare issues for the horses.
“There’s also a horse welfare side of that we often miss…and for me that’s one of the key things,” he said. “We’re seeing more and more collisions with horses, we’re seeing more and more interaction, we’re seeing wildlife pushed to certain areas and away from where they should be…. That is the full message that we need to tell.
“Our ecosystems, our horse populations, our wildlife populations — everything, right now, is being impacted. We are at a tipping point. Any solution is not going to be cheap, but doing nothing is far more costly.”
Whereas livestock and wildlife can be managed, horses are seen as management outliers in part because they have few native predators. Some estimates put horse populations at more than 300% of healthy levels. Overpopulation can lead to compacted soil, damage to riparian areas, increased invasive plants, and aggressive behavior among horses around watering areas, which can squeeze out other wildlife such as deer and elk.
A 2014 study at the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge found that “feral horse exclusion increased sagebrush density and plant species diversity and promoted recovery of important soil surface characteristics. Collectively, these results suggest that feral horse grazing at the utilization levels occurring in this study can affect the ecological function of semi-arid rangelands and may degrade the habitat value of these communities for associated wildlife.”
Moreover, taxpayers foot the bill for more than 45,000 horses in federal holding facilities to the tune of about $50 million a year. That cost could grow to $1 billion in the next 20 years, according to one estimate.
“Because of the ever increasing numbers and associated costs of housing excess animals, only [about] 5% of the [federal] program budget went to actual on-range population management,” according to an article by University of Nevada, Reno researchers published in the Society for Range Management journal late last year.
Carlisle said that incentivizing adoptions, by giving cash to horse adopters, can be a more cost effective way to address the problem.
Conference attendees are exploring strategies, including more engagement with Congress, public education, and improved management strategies. The conference was held by the Society for Range Management, the Wildlife Society, Jack H. Berryman Institute, Utah State University, and Nevada Bighorns Unlimited.