WASHINGTON — The government said Thursday it will scale back costly roundups of wild horses that some critics contend are inhumane.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management will reduce the number of wild horses removed from the range by about one-quarter – to 7,600 per year. The agency also will expand the use of fertility controls and increase the number of animals adopted by individuals or groups. The bureau continues to oppose horse slaughter, which some in the West have advocated as a way to thin herds.
The agency's director, Bob Abbey, said the new plan was intended to ensure that viable herds of wild horses and burros remain on the nation's public lands for generations to come. To improve the health of both horses and Western lands, officials need the help of private partners and must ensure that management decisions have a scientific foundation, Abbey said.
The changes do not include a proposal that Abbey and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar floated in late 2009 to move thousands of wild horses to preserves in the Midwest and East, where they would graze on land unthreatened by drought and wildfires. The government would have established large horse ranches open to the public for tours and educational visits. The preserves would have cost at least $92 million to buy and build. The plan ran into bipartisan opposition in Congress and among the public.
"It was very evident to us that the public did not like that idea and so we have dropped that from the strategy we are pursuing now," Abbey told reporters in a conference call.
The new approach comes a week after the House approved an amendment to cut the agency's budget by $2 million to protest the roundups. The program's annual cost has tripled over the past decade to $66 million. Annual costs are expected to reach at least $85 million by 2012.
More than 38,000 wild horses and burros roam in Nevada, California, Wyoming and other Western states. An additional 40,000 animals are cared for in corrals and pastures in Kansas, Oklahoma and South Dakota.
The wild horse program was created by Congress in 1971. It's intended to protect wild horse herds and the rangelands that support them. Under the program, thousands of horses are forced into holding pens, where many are vaccinated or neutered before being placed for adoption or sent to long-term corrals in the Midwest.
Animal rights advocates complain that the roundups – which sometimes include use of helicopters – are inhumane because some animals are traumatized, injured or killed.
Ranchers and other groups say the roundups are needed to protect fragile grazing lands that are used by cattle, Bighorn sheep and other wildlife.
Abbey said he knows the changes will not end controversy over the horse management program, but said they send an important message: "We will no longer kick the can down the road just because it is challenging."
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, called the latest plan encouraging, but said the Obama administration needs to do more to reduce the number of horses rounded up and removed from public lands.
The current plan "is not economically sustainable and it is bad policy," Pacelle said.
Bureau of Land Management: http://www.blm.gov