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Wild Horses in Need of Stable Home

A federal program pays ranchers to keep excess animals for the rest of their lives. The problem is the herds are increasing.

August 01, 2004|Martha Mendoza and Angie Wagner | Associated Press Writers

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 that 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 grass, ponds and creeks.

This year, the federal government is spending about $17,500 each day to feed wild horses too old to adopt out. 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," said Pat Shea, former Bureau of Land Management director. He 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 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 adopters must 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. After 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 needs more sanctuaries.

"They're the only effective tool we have right now, but they're very costly," Rawson said.

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