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Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board discusses elements for improvement

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Grand Junction, Colo. – On Oct. 19, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Wild Horse and Burro Program (WHBP) Advisory Board held a meeting and discussed key elements for a sustainable future.

Mary Jo Rugwell, BLM Wyoming state director, explained to the Advisory Board that, in the fiscal year 2017 Appropriations Act, Congress asked BLM for a report on the WHBP. The purpose of the report was to outline a path to achieve long-term, sustainable populations of wild horses and burros on rangelands in a humane manner.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke held initial conversations with various advocacy groups to gather input on the challenges WHBP is facing, she said.

“BLM wants to see healthy horses and burros on healthy rangelands. The nine elements from the report can help reach those goals,” Rugwell stated.


The first element Rugwell mentioned is achieving appropriate management levels (AML).  According to the 1971 Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, BLM is mandated to remove excess animals from rangelands to achieve AML.

“Achieving AML is important not just for the animals but for rangelands, too,” Rugwell commented.

Currently, there are 73,000 horses on the range, excluding the 2017 foal crop, with an excess of about 46,000 horses in the 177 herd management areas (HMA).

“It is difficult to effectively control populations in HMAs using only the fertility control vaccine porcine zona pellucida (PZP),” she added.

Maintaining AML is also difficult, Rugwell said, because wild horses and burros don’t have any natural predators, and without population growth suppression, herds can double in only four or five years.

“If the herds aren’t managed, rangelands and the animals are devastatingly impacted,” she said, noting public land uses are also being affected by inadequate herd control.

To combat overpopulation, gather and remove, adopt or sell and fertility control are the only methods available, Rugwell explained. Large HMAs and large herds require yearly gathers to administer PZP, and the cost per horse is $2,600, she added.

A limited budget and resources also means PZP can’t significantly reduce horse populations in crowded HMAs.

“Finding a more effective, longer-lasting vaccine that can be applied less frequently would increase population management success,” she noted.

Reducing holding costs

The most expensive part of WHBP is holding costs. In 2016, $47.5 million was spent holding horses, and those costs are a major challenge, said Rugwell.

“At a cost of two to five dollars per animal per day in off-range pastures and corrals, holding a large number of horses long-term is unsustainable,” Rugwell stated.

With the number of horses currently in long-term holding, $1 billion would be required to care for the horses over their lifetime.

“Off-range corrals are still necessary, though. Vaccinations, freeze branding, deworming and most adoptions take place at off-range corrals,” Rugwell said.

Reducing holding costs and finding a balance for horses on the range are critical, especially with a proposed cut of $10 million for WHBP next year, she added.

“More money could be spent in other areas, like on-range management, if holding costs are reduced,” Rugwell commented.

Adoption and treatment

Rugwell stated, over the last 10 years, the number of horses adopted has drastically decreased, but since 2014, partnerships with organizations like The Mustang Heritage Foundation have increased adoptions.

“More than 4,000 horses are on track to be adopted in 2017, but more horses are being removed from the range than are being adopted,” she noted.

WHBP has a comprehensive animal welfare policy in place for gathers, and veterinarians are always onsite during gathers, she commented. Policies for transportation, holding facilities and adoption events are also being developed.

“BLM’s goal is to get out of the gathering business. We want to develop a balanced population so gathers are not necessary,” Rugwell stated.

WHBP also supported 24 research studies in 2017, mostly related to population control methods and increasing estimate accuracy.

“Just over $13 million was spent on these studies, which will help solve current WHBP problems,” Rugwell said, commenting that the studies can aid WHBP in the future, as well.


According to Rugwell, another element being investigated is developing a market with tribal governments and foreign countries to give horses in long-term holding a purpose, like entertainment, personal or agriculture use.

Currently, WHBP uses Facebook and Twitter to provide the public with program information and announce adoption events and viewing opportunities for gathers.

“Flyers and promotional items are handed out at public events. WHBP also has a website with more details and is working on improving access to information,” she said.

Rugwell insisted increasing partnerships is one element WHBP must greatly improve for a successful program in the future.

“More partnerships with local groups and for on-range management are necessary,” she said, noting The Mustang Heritage Foundation trains wild horses, making adoption a more attractive option.

Developing new partnerships can help solve current WHBP challenges, she concluded.

Heather Loraas is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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