Can the Costs of the Wild Horse Program be Reined in?


by Dr. Tim Fitzgerald and Dr. Randy Rucker

Originally posted in the Property and Environment Research Center Magazine

The estimated 67,000 wild horses and burros on public rangelands in the western United States are controversial for a variety of reasons. Wild horse advocacy groups have argued continuously and strenuously for the well-being of horses. Other groups that have a stake in western public land management have also contributed to the debate. These include ranchers who lease public rangelands for livestock grazing, advocates for other wildlife that compete with horses for forage and water, and environmental groups concerned with rangeland health threatened by excess populations of wild horses and burros.

In addition to disputes over land use and animal welfare, another concern has been the rising costs of current policies. Between 1998 and 2016, appropriations for the wild horse and burro program more than quintupled, from $15 million to $80 million. Last year, former BLM Director Neil Kornze estimated that taxpayer costs to care for the 46,000 wild horses currently held by the BLM in long-term, off-range corrals and pastures would exceed $1 billion over the course of the animals’ lifetimes. Horses in these holding facilities typically have been captured by the agency, vaccinated, held in short-term facilities for up to two years, and offered for adoption at three separate auctions without a single buyer offering the minimum bid of $125. Kornze recently cited estimates that these lifetime costs would reach $50,000 per captured horse.

Why are taxpayers shelling out $50,000 a head to care for horses whose value is so low that no qualified private horse buyer is willing to offer $125 for one?

Wrangling the Costs

Today, there are approximately 67,000 wild horses and burros on the range—more than double the current target population of about 27,000. In other words, to comply with the provisions of the Wild Horses and Burros Act, the BLM would have to remove 40,000 horses from the range.

The rapid increase in the number of animals on the range in recent years illustrates the BLM’s predicament. Over the past three years, the growth rates of horses and burros on public rangelands have averaged 18 percent. At that rate, the population will double every four years—meaning it could more than quintuple to 350,000 animals in a decade—unless the agency increases its removals.

Horse and burro populations in both short- and long-term BLM holding facilities have also been increasing. The number of animals held by the agency grew from an average of about 7,000 from 1998 to 2000 to more than 45,000 in every year since 2012. Since the late 1990s, the share of the wild horse and burro program’s budget devoted to holding costs roughly doubled, from about one-third to two-thirds.

Gathering more wild horses from public rangelands doesn’t solve the problem—it only pushes it off the range. Between 2001 and 2006, 10,000 to 14,000 animals were removed each year, and in all but one of those years, removals exceeded adoptions, meaning that more animals are being held in government-run holding facilities. Furthermore, gathers are a point of contention for wild horse advocacy groups who object to the need for, and the techniques used in, reducing range populations. Since 2013, the BLM has removed fewer animals from federal rangelands, and the difference between removals and adoptions has been relatively small. This has slowed the growth in the inventory of horses held by the BLM, but it has contributed to the growth in on-range populations.

As a result of these management choices, the costs to taxpayers of the wild horse and burro program have risen markedly in recent years. The BLM now spends about $80 million each year on the program, with a large portion of that spent caring for thousands of horses that private buyers are not willing to pay $125 to adopt. Although the reduction in animal removals over the last few years has resulted in both the number of wild horses held by the BLM and the taxpayer costs of the program leveling off, the agency faces a dilemma. If all 40,000 excess animals currently on the range were gathered in the near future, then the costs of holding them could add roughly another $1 billion to the costs of the program over the lifetimes of the captured animals. On the other hand, if the animals are left on the public lands where they now roam, they’re likely to degrade rangelands, leaving the public-range resources one drought away from a calamity that no group—not the BLM, stockgrowers, horse advocates, or environmentalists—wants to see.

Reining in the Problem

Clearly, the BLM must change the way it manages wild horses and burros. From an economic perspective, the problem is that there are more wild horses and burros offered for adoption by the BLM than prospective buyers are willing to purchase at the $125 minimum. There are three options that could help address the problem: decrease the supply of wild horses, increase the demand for them, or decrease the minimum acceptable price for adoption. The BLM has taken steps along each of these margins, but frequent opposition from one interest group or another has stalled its efforts.

The excessive supply of wild horses ultimately stems from the fecundity of their on-range populations. The BLM has experimented with equine contraceptives such as the vaccine porcine zona pellucida, which reduces conception rates but is expensive to administer and is only effective for a relatively short period. Other attempts have been foiled by controversy. Last fall, for instance, in response to a lawsuit filed by a wild horse advocacy group, the BLM withdrew from a cooperative research effort with Oregon State University to develop new and more effective contraceptives. Another approach would be to increase the amount of public land available to wild horses, thereby decreasing the number of horses that need to be offered for adoption in the short term. But with the wild horse population growing 18 percent annually, any forage on additional acreage would be quickly consumed. And because there are currently no “unused” acres, devoting more rangeland for wild horses would mean displacing domestic livestock or other wildlife species. This situation reflects a political problem rather than a scientific one.

To bolster demand, the BLM has partnered with several horse-training programs, including high-profile efforts like “Extreme Mustang Makeover,” sponsored with the Mustang Heritage Foundation, to feature professional trainers working with charismatic wild American mustangs. One benefit of such programs is that wild horses are trained and subsequently made available for adoption. Our research suggests that the demand for these trained horses is high enough to fetch prices that more than cover training costs. In addition, the BLM engages in training programs with several western state penitentiaries, in which prisoners work with horses to make them more readily adoptable. Given the looming financial burden of unadopted animals stemming from the reality that the number of on-range animals will have to be reduced in the near future, the agency would do well to pay for training if it continues to decrease the number of excess animals destined for long-term holding.

Since 2004, the BLM has had the option to sell certain wild horses outside of the Adopt-a-Horse program. This is certainly a step toward lowering the minimum offer price, but this option is currently only available for horses that are at least 10 years old or have failed to attract the minimum adoption bids multiple times. Several thousand animals have been sold under this option, and the BLM’s proposed 2018 budget calls for an expansion of these sales. This option, however, brings its own concerns—primarily that some high-volume buyers may purchase animals only to illegally send them to slaughter in Mexico or Canada.

Another seemingly feasible option would be to lower the minimum acceptable bid at Adopt-a-Horse auctions—perhaps even to a negative price. For instance, suppose the BLM actually paid people $100 to adopt wild horses. If so, the agency could save taxpayers almost $50,000 for each horse that would otherwise live out its days in BLM holding facilities. Our analysis suggests that with such a $100 payment by the BLM, almost all the animals placed in long-term holding over the last several decades would have been adopted, and taxpayers would have saved $450 million. Implementing this strategy, however, might require amending the Wild Horses and Burros Act.

The BLM and wild horses are caught between two rocks and a hard place. One rock is existing users of government land such as livestock producers and other forms of wildlife that compete for finite rangeland resources. The second rock is wild horse advocacy groups that view any reduction in on-range populations as inhumane to the animals. The hard place is the reality of increasing program costs and the need for ever-greater appropriations. Over the past two decades, the dramatic increases in taxpayer costs suggest that these have been a relatively flexible margin for adjustment. But as expenditures for wild horses in BLM holding facilities eat up more and more funds, the pressure to find a pragmatic solution will build. Taxpayers and the health of western rangelands stand to benefit from such a solution, though perhaps not as much as the wild horses themselves.

To read the full article please click on the following link: PERC – You Can't Drag Them Away

Photo Credit: PERC

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