As the sun set on the honey-colored prairie here, a herd of wild horses grazed belly deep in Indiangrass and big bluestem. On the next ridge, a dozen more horses nibbled in the pasture, and beyond them even more, dotting the hills almost as far as the eye could see.
The head of the Bureau of Land Management’s wild horse program, Dean Bolstad, tipped up his cowboy hat and looked out at the animals from a hilltop.
“I love seeing this,” he said, “but it’s also an absolute anchor around our neck.”
The horses were grazing on a ranch the agency rents, one of 60 private ranches, corrals and feedlots where it stores the 46,000 wild horses it has removed from the West’s public lands. The cost: $49 million a year.
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Trying to make that rent has pushed the wild horse program into crisis. The expense eats up 66 percent of the federal budget for managing wild horses, and it is expected to total more than $1 billion over the life of the herds. The program cannot afford to continue old management practices that created the problem in the first place, or afford to come up with solutions that might fix it.
In short, the agency cannot break its cycle of storing horses because it is too busy storing horses.
“We’re in a real pickle,” Bolstad said. “We have huge challenges ahead of us, and we don’t have the resources to respond.”
Spending a billion dollars on pastures is a symptom of a broader problem. The agency says there are far too many wild horses roaming the West, and it must limit them to stave off damage to fragile ecosystems. But it never found a strategy that does not put more horses on storage ranches.
Some critics say management must become broader and include other options, like fertility control drugs for horses in the wild. Others say policies that eliminated predators like wolves, which once helped keep the horse population in check, need to be reconsidered. Still others say it is time to kill horses to free up resources. Animal-rights groups, meanwhile, oppose any killing of horses.
The bureau has struggled to limit wild horse populations since Congress passed a law in 1971 protecting the wild horses and burros that roam patches of public land in 10 Western states, and whose numbers increase naturally every year. The agency says the land can support only about 27,000 animals, but these days, there are about 77,000.
Repeated government audits going back 26 years have warned the bureau to find alternatives to storing horses before the cost crippled the program, but it never has. For decades, the bureau used helicopter roundups to thin herds, but it can now barely afford that because it spends so much on storing horses.
In recent years, the bureau tried fertility control drugs — administered through an annual shot delivered by dart gun — that would reduce the need for roundups. Now money for that has been spent on storing horses, too.
“The entire budget is tied up in feeding horses; we need to do something drastic, now,” said Ben Masters, a filmmaker who adopted seven wild horses and made a movie about riding them to Canada from Mexico. He now sits on the program’s nine-member advisory board.
In a phone interview from a wild horse area near Eureka, Nev., Masters described seeing thousands of acres damaged by overgrazing. “It’s totally degraded, and we need to save it, both for the horses and for the other wildlife.”
In September, the board voted 8-1 to kill the horses in storage. Masters said voting for the measure broke his heart. “It kills me. I’d love for there to be another way out, but I just don’t see it.”
After the vote, though, the bureau was flooded with outraged calls and emails, and officials quickly assured the public they had no plans to kill any horses. They have just signed contracts with ranches that can store 6,000 more horses.
Ginger Kathrens, a longtime wild horse advocate who sits on the bureau’s advisory board, cast the lone vote against killing the horses in storage, saying she favored increasing adoptions and finding places to put horses back out on the range.
“There are lots of things the BLM could do besides selling horses to kill buyers,” she said.
Federal law allows the agency to kill excess horses to maintain what it calls “a thriving natural ecological balance.” But regulators never took the step, in part fearing public reaction, and in part because Congress in recent years has added riders to various bills banning the killing of healthy wild horses.
Instead, the agency has encouraged people to adopt wild horses. But the number of people offering homes has rarely equaled the number of horses gathered in roundups.
The rest go to places like the Hughes Ranch, here in Oklahoma, where for about $2 per horse per day, Robert Hughes, a cattle rancher, maintains just over 4,000 horses on thousands of acres of prime grassland.
“I basically run an old folks home for horses,” he said with a chuckle as he looked out at the grazing herds. “They’re in good groceries right here, I can tell you that.”
Asked whether the agency should continue to store horses or euthanize them, he shook his head: “Hey, look, man, I’m in the grass-farming business.”
He said he did not have anything to do with policy. “If this deal ended, we’d get back into livestock in a big way.”
The agency now finds itself buffeted on all sides by lawsuits. Ranchers who share the range are demanding that horse numbers be brought down to prescribed levels. Animal rights groups are demanding an end to roundups and darting.
By next year, the agency expects an increase of 15,000 horses.
In September, the advisory board toured a wild horse herd area in Nevada that had not been grazed by cattle in eight years. Sue McDonnell, a board member who teaches equine behavior at the University of Pennsylvania, said she opposed euthanasia until she saw the battered grasses and invasive weeds.
“It was awful,” she said in an interview. “A lot of that land is under severe stress. If we don’t act now, there will be parts that will be lost effectively forever. The horses will die, other wildlife will die, and that will be that.”
While few people disagree that regions of the West are overgrazed, critics of the agency say it is wrong to blame wild horses, which are outnumbered by cattle 10-1 on bureau lands.
Killing horses in storage would only enable unsustainable practices that favor ranchers, they say.
“The population problem is just a symptom of a failed public lands wildlife policy,” said Michael Harris, a lawyer for Friends of Animals. To find a lasting solution, he said, the federal government must address decades of management policies that have eradicated wolves and mountain lions, which prey on horses, from public lands, creating a landscape where horses reproduce rapidly.
“We’re not going to solve this problem unless we have a policy that makes room for wildlife on the land — all wildlife, not just horses,” he said.