Protected wild horses, burros overwhelm federal government

From the Associated Press
11:37 AM CDT on Saturday, July 17, 2004

OSAGE COUNTY, Okla. – On the Oklahoma plains, where the tall grass and flowing creeks provide refuge for ragged and graying wild horses, rancher John Hughes keeps burial pits ready for the ones too weak to survive another winter.

No matter how many horses Hughes buries, he doesn’t have to wait long for another trailer full of live ones to rumble down the road.

There are always more. Capacity here is 2,000 horses, a number Hughes is always close to, and today there are 15 more than that.

These are the legendary wild horses of the American West – for some a living symbol of America’s natural strength and beauty, for others a feral pest that has overpopulated dwindling public lands.

The horses of this aging herd, and many like them, represent a growing problem.

They are old – 15 years on average – and unwanted, but sent to this retirement home for horses by a public that demands their protection, one that comes at a hefty price.

They’ve taken a long, expensive journey across the country to arrive at their new home. Here, on a ranch outside Bartlesville, they live out their days on 18,000 acres of land full of grass, ponds and creeks.

This year the federal government is spending about $17,500 each day just to feed wild horses too old to adopt out and protected from slaughter. Some will live more than 30 years.

There are too many horses, so many that even adoptable ones live with the aging horses.

“These horses are truly a great story of institutional resistance,” says former Bureau of Land Management Director Pat Shea, who struggled under the Clinton administration to control and manage the wild herds. “No one has the gumption to actually deal with them.”

Here’s the problem: More than 20,000 wild horses and burros have accumulated in recent years in government corrals and sanctuaries. About 36,000 more roam public space managed by the Interior Department’s BLM, competing with grazing cattle for food, stressing the ecosystem, reproducing at a rate that can double their population every four years and facing few natural predators.

Taxpayers are being asked to pick up the bill, which is increasing rapidly. In 2000 – when the total wild horse and burro population was about 51,000 – the program cost about $21 million. In its current budget request – with 36,000 horses on the range and 20,000 in holding pens and sanctuaries – the BLM is asking for $42 million. That level of funding, said BLM officials, needs to be permanent.

“It’s just dealing with all those numbers of horses,” said Jeff Rawson, group manager of the BLM’s National Wild Horse and Burro Program.

Federal efforts to manage the herds, as mandated by the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, have been historically unsuccessful. Over the years, managers and wild horse and burro advocates have proposed an array of solutions.

One plan, to round up excess horses and adopt them out for about $125 a horse (the cost to taxpayers was about $1,400 each) led to thousands being sent to slaughterhouses in the 1980s and early 1990s, where they were sold for a profit and processed for human consumption in Europe.

Restrictions enacted in 1997 now require adopters to sign an affidavit that they don’t plan to sell an adopted animal for slaughter and requiring adopters to keep the horse for a year before they can receive a title. That has reduced the number eventually reaching the slaughterhouse to about 600 a year, according to the attorney representing the two remaining horse slaughterhouses in the United States.

Another plan, to use a birth control vaccine on wild mares, is working, but has only been given to about 1,500 horses since 1992. The two-year vaccine is still being studied, but the BLM would rather use a four-year vaccine, which is being developed.

A third option, Internet bidding for the horses, is being used by a limited number of potential adoptees.

The BLM has begun studying a fourth option: a pilot program in Wyoming where two ranchers took about 30 wild horses each in exchange for a one-time payment of $1,800 a horse. The program could expand to more ranchers, but the BLM currently has no money for that.

The Wyoming ranchers won’t get rich on the program. They were paid $1,800 a horse, but the animals, already 10 to 12 years old, could live 20 more years.

Other solutions that never took off include using computer-chip ear tags to track wild horses and euthanizing excess animals.

Adoptions are still done, and a handful of prisons in the West have partnered with the BLM to have inmates train the animals. Following training, the horses have a much better chance of being adopted by private individuals.

But for now wild horse and burro managers are shifting their focus to sanctuary. Sanctuaries, or long-term holding facilities, cost less than holding horses in corrals and converted feedlots like the BLM did until around 1988. But there are so many horses the BLM need more sanctuaries.

“They’re the only effective tool we have right now, but they’re very costly,” Rawson said.

Historians say more than 2 million wild horses roamed the United States at the turn of the 20th century, some of them descendants of horses brought here by Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500s. Others are the offspring of farm, cavalry, ranch and mining animals that escaped or were turned loose on public lands.

As cattle boomed, competition for grazing land prompted ranchers – as well as hunters and “mustangers” – to gather, and often randomly shoot the wild horses.

In the 1950s, Nevada’s Velma Johnston, dubbed “Wild Horse Annie,” started a letter-writing campaign, predominantly among schoolchildren, to save the animals.

“Seldom has an issue touched such a responsive chord,” reported The Associated Press in July 1959.

That lobbying effort continues today, Shea said.

“The horse protection people have got members of Congress beaten about their heads and shoulders by 14-year-old girls who feel these horses are their own,” he said. “When I was BLM director, the first time something adverse happened to a horse, I must have gotten 500 e-mails from girls around the world telling me I was a bad person.”

In 1971, when poachers had reduced the estimated wild horse and burro population to about 25,000, President Nixon outlawed the hunting and killing of the animals and designated them as natural resources.

The law, while well-intentioned, has proved impossible. The BLM has never had what it calls an “appropriate management level” of horses on the range, meaning the number of horses the land can support as determined by the government.

Now, the BLM says it’s as close as it’s ever been to achieving that. It hopes to trim the herd of 36,000 wild horses across the country to 26,000 by 2006.

To do that means rounding up horses and sending even more into sanctuaries in the Midwest, where ranchers who won competitive contracts are paid between $1.22 and $1.30 per horse a day to keep horses in perpetuity.

Today, seven ranches – four in Oklahoma and three in Kansas – keep around 13,600 wild horses. That’s almost as many horses as remain on the range in all Western states except Nevada and Wyoming.

The BLM plans to open up to four more sanctuaries.

But is this what the act intended, to keep so many horses in a never-ending welfare system?

“We’re dealing with an animal population,” Rawson said. “It’s not something you get to a point and walk away.”

The BLM wanted to get 10,500 horses off the range this year, but only 3,400 were gathered before the horse and burro program ran out of money for roundups. The BLM still hopes to round up 6,000 horses this summer, Rawson said.

Critics say the program is just a numbers game to the BLM, a constant cycle of removing horses from the range and shipping them to various facilities. Some horse advocate groups even accuse the BLM of trying to get rid of herds because they want to destroy the wild horse program.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Andrea Lococo, Rocky Mountain coordinator for the Fund for Animals. “I don’t think this agency really wanted to manage wild horses. They’ve done a really pitiful job from the get-go.”

A few miles outside Bartlesville, John Hughes climbs into his pickup truck and makes the rounds to check on his wild horses. He used to have cattle on these endless acres of land, but business was changing and he needed more stable income.

In 1988, he received a BLM contract to keep the horses on his Oklahoma ranch. This year, Hughes will receive $912,500 from the government to house them. He fertilizes grass, feeds the horses alfalfa hay in the winter, makes sure his fences are intact and buries a horse when it dies.

He has another contract to keep 2,000 wild horses on a second ranch and still keeps cattle on leased ranches.

“I love the cattle business, but it requires a large amount of capital. This is a great combination for us. There’s no question about it,” Hughes said. “This gives us steady income.”

Taking wild horses has also been good for Wyoming ranchers Ben and Pauline Middleton, who house 28 horses at their rural ranch.

“It sounds like a good, win-win deal for everybody,” Pauline Middleton said. “The horses are certainly happier when they’re out of the corral. We felt we were adequately paid.”

Last year, 550 people asked to review the BLM’s contracts for two sanctuaries before they went out to bid; 18 people submitted bids.

The horses here in Osage County, all geldings, are considered unadoptable because they are too old.

Hughes, his white hair peeking out from his cowboy hat, drives up close to a group of horses gathered near his ranch house. A brown and white horse, No. 0675 branded into his left hip, stops, glances at two fellow geldings, then they turn away, manes bouncing as they pound the earth. Here, they eat all they want, drink from the ponds and creeks and never worry about starving.

“They have a little easier life here,” Hughes said.

He does his job and pays little attention to the politics of the wild horse program.

“A rancher in Oklahoma doesn’t know anything about the BLM,” he said.

Sanctuaries are always full or close to it.

“They’re beautiful on the range. They really are,” said Larry Johnson, a member of the Wild Horse and Burro Program Advisory Board, a panel that advises the BLM on horse management.

“You can’t fault a public for wanting to protect that resource. It’s the right thing to do, but at the same time, the public has to be willing to pay for it.”

Fund for Horses