If a budget is a statement of priorities, then what are we to make of the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) recent decision to sign a $6 million contract with a company that provides helicopters for wild horse roundups while cutting back spending at the largest wild horse adoption facility in the country?
Let's take a step back and consider the facts:
The across-the-board, automatic federal spending cuts, known as the sequester, took effect on March 1. It was reported that the impacts would be widespread, painful and felt immediately.
So it was no surprise when, on March 24, the BLM announced that the sequester forced the agency to slash weekend operating hours at its Palomino Valley National Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Center. The facility is 20 miles north of Reno and a key component of the agency's adoption program for federally protected wild horses.
You can imagine my reaction this week when the Weekly Standard discovered that, nine days before that, on March 15, the BLM signed a contract with Skyhawk Helicopter Services for $6 million. This arrangement gives the agency access to the key tool it needs to execute roundups of wild horses over the course of the coming year.
Two crucial pieces of information demonstrate how these spending decisions reflect the BLM's misguided priorities for its wild horse program.
The first is that helicopters can be used - carefully -- in the process capturing horses to administer the PZP vaccine. This is a fertility control drug that many wild horse advocates like myself support because it keeps wild horses on the range where they belong and eliminates the need for an expensive, inhumane and unsustainable stockpiling system.
But if last year is any indication, helicopters operating under this contract won't be doing much of that. In 2012, the BLM spent less than 4% of its budget on fertility control and other measures to keep wild horses wild. The rest of the budget -- the vast majority of the program's expenditures -- went to capturing wild horses, removing them from our public lands and stockpiling them in holding facilities.
What are the consequences of this approach? For the first time in history, more wild horses are warehoused in captivity (50,000) than remain free in the wild (fewer than 32,000). And since these are government holding facilities, stockpiling 50,000 wild horses costs taxpayers more than $120,000 per day.
The second piece of information you need to know is that wild horse adoptions can be a relief valve for the program. At least they could be if the agency wasn't removing horses from the wild in numbers that far exceed adoption demand. Over the past four years, the BLM has annually removed 8,000-10,000 horses and burros from the wild while adopting out fewer than 3,000 of them.
Although leaving wild horses on the range -- not adoption -- is the solution to BLM's mismanagement woes, it is true that every horse that is not adopted goes into the stockpiling system. So by cutting Saturday hours at the Palomino Valley Adoption Center, the BLM limits access for people who do want to adopt horses, and that will likely lead to fewer adoptions, more horses in stockpiling and a higher price tag for taxpayers.
The irony of the BLM's response to the sequester is that it might lead to an even more expensive wild horse program. That's difficult to fathom given that the program's budget has doubled since 2009 -- leaving taxpayers on the hook for $78 million in 2012 alone. But that's what will happen if the BLM scales back adoption opportunities, continues to underutilize fertility control, while roundups continue apace.
The reality is that we know how to make this program more cost effective, humane and sustainable, so why isn't the BLM embracing these alternatives in a time of tight budgets? After all, we thought the sequester would force the BLM to fundamentally rethink its approach to wild horses. But as these decisions demonstrate, we thought wrong. The BLM appears to be digging in its heels with the same failed approach to wild horse management.
Taxpayers will be left to pick up the tab, but wild horses might not be left at all.
Follow Suzanne Roy on Twitter: www.twitter.com/FreeWildHorses