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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wild Horses and Burros: Issues and Proposals

Carol Hardy Vincent
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 (the 1971 Act) protects wild horses and burros on federal lands, and places them under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service (FS). Under the 1971 Act, the agencies are to inventory horse and burro populations on federal land to determine appropriate management levels (AMLs). They are authorized to remove animals exceeding the range’s carrying capacity. First, the agencies are to destroy “old, sick, or lame animals” by the most humane means available. Second, they are to remove healthy animals for private adoption. Third, if adoption demand is insufficient, the remaining healthy animals are to be destroyed. However, the agencies have not used this authority since 1982, and the FY2011 Interior appropriations law prohibited funds from being used to slaughter healthy animals. In addition, under a 108th Congress change, the agencies are to sell, “without limitation,” excess animals (or their remains) that essentially are too old or otherwise unadoptable.

BLM has not achieved reduction to the national AML, which is 26,576 for all herds. There were an estimated 38,497 wild horses and burros on BLM lands as of February 28, 2011. Another 41,874 animals were in BLM holding facilities as of September 2011. More than half of BLM’s $75.8 million FY2011 appropriation for wild horses and burros was used to care for animals in holding facilities. A much smaller number of horses and burros are on FS lands—4,700.

Management of wild horses and burros has long been controversial, with most attention centering on BLM. Among the most contentious issues are whether BLM should destroy healthy animals under the authority provided in the 1971 Act, and sell animals “without limitation” as provided in the 108th Congress change. Other controversial issues include the priority given wild horses and burros in land use decisions; whether, and to what extent, to remove animals from the range; the disposal of healthy animals through the adoption and sales programs; the extent of holding animals in facilities, particularly long-term (pasture) facilities; the use of fertility control to slow the rate of reproduction; and the costs of management and whether funding is appropriate.

Several sets of options are being considered or implemented for reaching AML, limiting the number of animals in holding, reducing program costs, and generally improving the care and management of wild horses and burros, primarily by BLM. An October 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office recommended that BLM use different methods to estimate populations, issue a policy to achieve consistency in setting AMLs, provide information to the public on treatment of animals, and develop alternatives to caring for animals in facilities. In November 2008, the Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board made recommendations to BLM on how to reduce wild horse and burro herd sizes, population growth, and costs of management, among other issues. On October 7, 2009, the Secretary of the Interior, calling the BLM wild horse and burro program “unsustainable,” announced proposals to establish wild horse preserves for the care of non-producing herds, and to reduce population growth rates through such methods as expanded use of fertility control. In February 2011, BLM released a draft strategy to advance the Secretary’s proposals, pursue new options for animals removed from the range, and reduce program costs. In spring 2011, BLM began to solicit proposals to establish wild horse and burro sanctuaries, either on BLM or combined public-private land, for the long-term care of nonreproducing herds. Further, the National Academy of Sciences is developing recommendations for BLM on using the best science in caring for wild horses and burros. Two recent reports (Department of the Interior and American Association of Equine Practitioners) found overall quality care for wild horses and burros, while providing recommendations. No broad legislation to amend the 1971 Act has been introduced in the 112th Congress.

Date of Report: December 8, 2011
Number of Pages: 31
Order Number: RL34690
Price: $29.95

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