Pastured ‘wild’ horses to cost U.S. $1 billion by 2030, researchers warn in report
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Captive “wild” horses will cost U.S. taxpayers $1 billion by 2030 if federal management approaches don’t change, according to a new report by a pair of researchers who were part of a national committee that studied the issue.
A possible solution, they say: contraceptive vaccines.
The report by researchers Madan Oli of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, and Robert Garrott of Montana State University, was published late last week in the journal Science. Oli is a professor in the wildlife ecology and conservation department, and Garrott is a professor in the MSU ecology department.
In 1971, Congress instructed federal agencies to protect and manage wild horses, monitor the population and remove horses when numbers exceed established population goals.
As Garrott and Oli wrote, thousands of those horses are now kept, not as the untamed creatures many associate with the Wild West, but as domesticated livestock, living out the decades in pastures, for which the pasture owners are compensated.
The problem, the pair confirmed, is that the cost of maintaining the captive horses is increasingly unsustainable. From 2013 through 2030, caring for the horses will cost taxpayers $1.1 billion, Oli said, and $67 million annually after that.
The federal Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, now reports 33,000 free-roaming horses in the western U.S., but even more – roughly 45,000 – are in short- or long-term holding facilities.
When wild horse numbers grow too large, they are rounded up and taken to short-term holding facilities, where the bureau puts many up for sale or adoption. If they are too ill for either, they are euthanized, but federal officials are barred from euthanizing healthy horses. Healthy horses not sold or adopted are moved to long-term holding facilities, where they typically remain for the rest of their lives.
The National Research Council committee Garrott and Oli served on concluded that if horse populations are left unmanaged, the number of horses on public lands will triple about every six years until eventually, food and water supplies are thin.
The wild horse population has been growing at an annual rate of between 15 and 20 percent, Oli said.
“If current management approaches continue, there will be very little money left in the BLM wild horse and burro budget to do anything else but care for horses in captivity,” Oli said. “Rounding them up is pretty expensive, and at some point, nearly all of the budget would be consumed by horses in captivity. It will just be totally unsustainable to continue business as usual.”
The researchers estimated that the 15 to 20 percent annual population increase in western horse herds could be halved if contraceptive vaccines were more widely used. Contraception for horses is labor intensive because it must be hand-injected. More research into new delivery methods could help, Oli said.
While the debate over wild horses has gone on for years, it is clear something must be done, the researchers said. After dying out during the last ice age, horses were returned to North America by Spanish explorers in the mid-1500s, later mixing with modern domestic horses that found their way to the range. Prolific breeders, their numbers multiply quickly in the absence of natural predators.
The paper concludes with a sobering look at Australia, where government agencies have proposed shooting 10,000 of the 400,000-strong wild horse population from helicopters to reduce the number of animals suffering under severe drought conditions.
“We need to think about what’s ethical, what we want to do. The worst-case scenario is that we do nothing,” Garrott said. “Simply not doing anything will result in a much, much harder decision in the future.”