Time for a brief quiz.

Question 1): How many wild horses and burros are currently roaming across the Western rangelands?

Question 2: How many wild horse and burros are adopted by private citizens each year?

Question 3): Absent “control measures,” how long does it take for the population of wild horses and burros to double in numbers?

Answers: 1). 67,000. 2). 2,500. 3). Four years.

In other words, each year there are thousands more of these feral animals being added to what is already an overpopulation across the semi-arid rangelands of Nevada, California, Utah and several other Western states.

In fact, the Bureau of Land Management announced last week that as of this March, there an estimated 67,000 wild horses and burros in the West public rangelands, which is a 15% increase over the estimated 2015 population.

The updated data are more than twice the number of horses on the range than is recommended under BLM land-use plans. It is also two and a half times the number of horses and burros that were estimated to be in existence when the Wild and Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed 45 years ago in 1971.

“Over the past seven years we have doubled the amount of funding used for managing our nation’s wild horses and burros,” Neil Kornze, BLM Director, said in a statement. “Despite this, major shifts in the adoption market and the absence of a long-term fertility control drug have driven population levels higher.”

The major shift to which Kornze referred is a dramatic decrease in adoptions of wild horses, due to economics and other factors — ie, the fact that the wild mustangs, in particular, don’t adapt well to life in a stable.

Here’s the problem: The lifetime cost of caring for an unadopted horse removed from the range approaches $50,000 per animal. With 46,000 horses and burros already residing in off-range corrals and pastures, this means that without some way to place these animals with willing owners, BLM will spend more than a billion dollars to care for and feed them over the rest of their lives.

And there are plenty more where the current ones came from.

As The New York Times phrased the situation in a lengthy article two years ago, “There are now twice as many wild horses in the West as federal land managers say the land can sustain. The program that manages them has broken down, and unchecked populations pose a threat to delicate public land, as well as the ranches that rely on it.”

And the situation has only worsened since then.

A question of numbers

Keep in mind that the population of wild horses and burros affects not just agency budgets and wildlife populations, but impacts a significant economic and cultural resource: the grasslands of the West. When deer populations exceed their rural habitats east of the Mississippi, there is property damage and traffic accidents for suburban and rural residents to contend with, but there is far less impact on agriculture.

Not so out West. There simply isn’t carrying capacity for ever-expanding herds of horse and burros, while at the same time maintaining the grazing rights of ranchers and conserving the limited supply of grassland and water resources.

BLM officials are trying to address the challenge on a number of fronts, including:

  • Sponsoring research on fertility control, which to date is neither effective nor inexpensive
  • Transitioning horses from off-range corrals to lower cost pastures, which at best may offer modest mitigation of the cost burden
  • Working to increase adoptions with new programs and partnerships, which won’t even get the populations stabilized at the levels of 10 or 15 years ago, when horse adoptions were far more popular

None of those measures — even in combination — will be enough, however, and so the agency announced in a statement that it would request two new pieces of legislation: One to permit the transfer of horses to other agencies that have a need for work animals; and another that would create a congressionally chartered foundation to help fund and support adoption efforts.

Unfortunately, all the money in the world can’t turn adoption in to a sustainable solution. Wild mustangs and feral burros make lousy pets and equally undesirable work animals. It’s one thing to “domesticate” bison, another “wild” species dependent on rangelands. The time, trouble and expense of keeping them corralled represents an investment recouped by selling the meat and hides, whereas the only reason to keep horses around these days is to ride them, either for pleasure, for racing or for equestrian competition.

Most wild horses are highly unsuited to all of the above.

As is true with any invasive species, the spectrum of control measures starts out with the least intrusive, most humane interventions. But unless such a limited strategy actually works, efforts must be ramped up — all the way to forcible population control.

I’ve yet to hear from any activist with a better solution.

Or one with an extra billion they’d like to donate to the cause. 

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.