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Running out of options

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

BLM considers euthanization for wild horses

Southwest Wyoming – With more than 33,000 wild horses and burros on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands and nearly 30,000 animals in holding facilities, the BLM is inundated. Add skyrocketing costs for feed, care and transportation and options have become limited.
    The current circumstances have caused the BLM Wild Horse and Burro program to consider euthanization of “excess” animals with no adoption demand. The BLM has authority to euthanize under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.
    Gary Zakotnik, a brand inspector in southwest Wyoming and member of the Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board said the consideration of euthanization comes down to dollars. Of the $38 million total wild horse and burro program budget, it has taken $26 million to feed the horses gathered from the range and placed in long-term and short-term holding facilities.
    “It takes more and more of the budget to feed captive horses and this reduces gather money,” Zakotnik said and added that reducing gathers would have serious consequences. “If we don’t gather for four years, wild horse numbers would be back to about 66,000.”
    The current herd numbers are already causing budget dilemmas. The BLM reported that holding facility costs are “spiraling out of control.” Transportation and feed costs increased by $4 million in just one year and total budget needs are estimated to climb from $44 million in 2008 to a needed $77 million in 2012. The agency also reports that holding facility costs are preventing successful management of other parts of the program.
    Zakotnik said the consideration of euthanization also goes back to the BLM’s goal to “manage healthy, free-roaming herds on healthy rangelands,” and an uncontrolled number of horses won’t help them meet that goal.
    “You can remove all livestock and all wildlife and eventually the horses would destroy the range,” Zakotnik said.
    Some states have unfortunately felt the effects of overpopulation. Zakotnik said Nevada is doing emergency gathers because the wild horses have “eaten themselves out of house and home” and are out of water. He says the lack of forage and water systems has nothing to do with domestic stock on the land.
    “That is a classic example of what happens if all domestic stock are removed,” he said. “The horse numbers only increase and they don’t have natural predators so they increase to the point of no longer being sustainable.”
    Dick Loper, grazing consultant with the Wyoming State Grazing Board, echoes the concerns of rangeland damage due to overpopulation of wild horses. He said almost all the adverse affects are a result of too many horses in an area year-round. Loper said some ranges have the appropriate carrying capacity of animals but the government isn’t willing to limit the seasons that the animals are on the land.
    The BLM reports overpopulation would cause an “environmental disaster,” due to overgrazing, malnutrition and starvation, damage to vegetation and riparian areas, damage to wildlife habitat, increased soil erosion and lower water quality.
    A level of 27,300 animals is the appropriate management level for herds to thrive in balance with other rangeland recourses and uses in the West. However, there are currently 33,000 horses and burros on BLM managed lands; and that’s not including the 30,000 in facilities.
    “I would like to see a more realistic approach to the numbers, the size of areas and more management of the health of the animals with respect to the land,” Loper said. “There is room for everybody, but too much of everything is not good for the horses.”
    The recent downward trends in the Wild Horse and Burro adoption numbers add more weight for the BLM’s euthanasia consideration. Alan Sheperd with the Wyoming Wild Horse and Burro Program has seen a severe decline in adoption numbers within the last year. The Wyoming program normally averages 225-250 adoptions per year and Sheperd said the program will be lucky to hit 50 percent of that mark this year. Sheperd attributes the dropping numbers to economics.
    “With fuel, hay, boarding and the economy in general, people are asking ‘Am I going to feed a horse or buy food for my kids?’” he said. “People are making the right decision, but it’s not helping our program.”
    Turning to euthanasia as a relief hasn’t been without trying many other options. Sheperd says the program has promoted adoption of horses through mustang makeovers and challenges, along with wide-reaching advertising campaigns.
    “I just spent nine days at Cheyenne Frontier Days promoting the program and spreading the word about what we’re doing,” Sheperd said. “I don’t think we’re sitting back and saying the heck with it. We’re trying to get the word out and using every media outlet we can, but if people can’t pay to have a wild horse they can’t help us.”
    Adding insult to injury, the large portion of budget going to holding facilities has limited funds for advertising and promoting adoption.
    Loper said he understands the consideration of euthanization because the BLM is running out of options. The issue of euthanization has raised the hackles of many animal rights groups, but both Loper and Zakotnik said euthanasia is a humane option.
    “It is very difficult for those of us who love horses, rangelands and our native country to see horses starving,” Loper said. “I’d rather see horses euthanized than subject to inhumane treatment.”
    Some animal rights groups have argued that removing livestock from public lands would free up forage and water and sustain a larger wild horse population, but Loper disagreed and said it would help during the growing season, but would not provide any additional habitat during the winter. He said the carrying capacity of the wild horses should be based on the season when there is the least amount of habitat and because livestock don’t graze in these areas in the wintertime, removing them wouldn’t help the horses.
    Loper also added that if ranchers weren’t grazing livestock on these public lands, many water sources used by wild horses in the summer wouldn’t be maintained. The water is available because of the livestock, he said.
    Interactions between producers and wild horses are a daily occurrence in the southwest corner of Wyoming and Rock Springs Grazing Association President John Hay said his members have a vested interest in the success of herd-size management. Due to a unique “checkerboard” arrangement of public and private lands created after the railroad came through Wyoming, the grazing association member’s lands are intermingled with lands that house wild horses.
    “The horses coming onto our lands is a huge issue and is particularly difficult during the drought years,” Hay said.
    The grazing association isn’t shy about ensuring horse numbers are kept in check. Prior to 1971, operators were able to manage wild horses numbers, but after the BLM adopted the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 the authority went to the agency. The horse numbers eventually grew beyond what the land could maintain and after repeated requests to the BLM to maintain numbers, the grazing association sued and the court ordered the agency to manage herd populations.
    The State of Wyoming has a similar agreement that was reached in 2003. Wyoming Department of Agriculture Director John Etchepare said a suit was filed after the BLM stopped managing for herd numbers in the state’s 16 herd management areas. The court ordered the BLM to maintain appropriate management levels making Wyoming the only state with a court order for herd management.
    “[The BLM has] lived up to agreed upon numbers, but the problem the BLM has is what to do with the horses once they are off the land,” Etchepare said and added that euthanization is the result of not having a viable method of which to deal with excess animals.
    Hay said he sees an alternative solution beyond euthanization in the BLM’s authority to sell excess horses.
    “I believe they need to address the issue,” he said. “It makes sense to send these horses to countries that want to have them. [Selling wild horses] is not looked upon favorably by some, but I think they need to consider that. The euthanasia discussion is difficult to swallow, but the sale authority could get things back in control.”
    The dealings between the Rock Springs Grazing Association members and the wild horses aren’t about competition. Zakotnik, who works with many of the members, said the ranchers actually like having the horses there and that reflects in the court decision between the grazing association and the BLM. Hay said the decision includes an agreement to allow some horses on private lands.
    Loper said this is a common attitude among agriculturists and sharing the land for multiple-uses is something they embrace because agriculture is a multiple-use way of life.
    “In all honesty, I could count on one hand during my entire professional career the people that don’t think there’s room for horses on land as well as wildlife and livestock,” Loper said. “Ranchers live on the land and see the value of all resources, including horses.”
    “We run across way more environmentalists who want to remove livestock than we run into livestock people who want to remove everything but livestock,” he added.
    Ultimately, Hay said the Rock Springs Grazing Association wants to see the horse management area numbers held to the agreed-upon numbers and they would like to see the program utilize their population management options. However, Hay also stressed that elimination of the wild horses has never been their objective.
    “It’s not our desire to eliminate the horses,” Hay said. “We simply want to keep them at the agreed-upon numbers.”
    The Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board will meet again this fall and euthanization of wild horses will most likely be a hot topic on the agenda.
    Liz LeSatz is the 2008 Summer Intern for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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