It’s Five Minutes To Midnight: The Wild Horse And Burro Tragedy

wild horses Shutterstock/Susan Schmitz

Barry L. Perryman Professor of rangeland ecology
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From bringing pioneers to the wWest to rounding up livestock on ranches, the horse has contributed to the rich history of the United States since being introduced to North America by Spanish explorers in the 1500s. Centuries later, the species is contributing to history in a much different way, with feral horse and burro populations sparking controversial political debates.

Wild horses and burros have been on the congressional chalkboard since 1959. Congress, with President Nixon’s signature in 1971, crafted a plan to ensure that the feral horses and burros present on public land areas at that time were protected, but also managed and controlled for our national posterity. Seven years later, the Public Rangelands Improvement Act authorized the Interior Secretary to reduce horse and burro populations when they exceeded appropriate management levels.

Despite the underlying statute, political machinations inside the Beltway have prevented the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from acting on the original authorization. Congress has repeatedly used the appropriations process to limit the BLM’s ability to implement population controls.

In the meantime, on-range wild horse and burro populations in the Intermountain West have exploded to an all-time high. There are around 87,000 horses and burros currently on Interior lands, with an additional 7,000 animals managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Combined, these populations are approximately 67,000 animals above the authorized appropriate management level. Many thousands more likely live on Sovereign Reservations throughout the West, but their numbers have never been verified.

Off-range the situation is equally dire. Some 45,000 animals live in long-term holding facilities, with tax-payers footing the bill for what amounts to a full pension and medical plan. The program eats up about 60% of the total annual Interior program budget, and is expected to cost taxpayers over a billion dollars during the next twenty years.

Every day, more and more rangeland ecologists, scientists, academicians, habitat specialists, and wildlife managers are concluding that our nation has reached a crisis stage in horse and burro management. We urgently need a reset to reduce populations to manageable levels. Not only are horses and burros increasingly vulnerable to massive starvation, the ever-expanding population is destroying precious habitat that other wildlife, including the most vulnerable and endangered species, depend on.

Preserving the habitat of the sage grouse, for example, has been the focus of a massive planning effort over the last 20 years. Unchecked horse and burro populations threaten to undermine that progress. In many areas, year-round overuse of the range by horses and burros has literally destroyed sage grouse habitat. Some areas will never recover to previous conditions. There cannot be viable sage grouse populations where horse and burro populations are out of control. There must be a reset and a balance to preserve the health of rangeland ecosystems.

Additional livestock reductions are not the answer. If you have dysfunction in a box, placing it in a larger box doesn’t change things. You just have more dysfunction in a larger box. Big game wildlife populations are also managed through increases or decreases in the availability of hunting licenses. Should we reduce big game wildlife species to accommodate even more habitat destruction by out-of-control horse and burro populations?

Just as we recognized the contribution of horses to the economy, history and character of the United States on the National Day of the Horse, we must also recognize the impact of unmanaged feral populations. Despite some efficacy of contraception, at current population levels, horse and burro numbers can only be managed effectively through the gather process. Anything that inhibits the application of horse and burro management tools authorized by law jeopardizes the habitats that support a myriad of different wildlife species and land uses in the Intermountain West.

It’s five minutes to midnight. It’s the moment we can no longer wait to do the responsible thing for the wildlife species that cannot speak for themselves. Sage grouse, rabbits, curlews, avocets, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope all deserve our beneficial attention, too.

Between overindulgence and passiveness lies the honorable road of responsibility. It’s time for our elected and appointed leaders to walk that road.

Barry L. Perryman, Ph.D., is a professor of rangeland ecology at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.