Program to care for horses has doubled taxpayer costs in four years

The government is watching money stampede away, with little idea what to do about it.

The cost of an Interior Department program to care for America’s wild horses has doubled in the past four years: from $40 million in 2009 to $80 million in 2013. And until a long-term solution can be found, the spending is only going to increase.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) says only about 26,000 wild horses and burros – small donkeys – can exist in the wild before they start to interfere with human settlements, crops and ranches.  So each year the agency rounds up roughly 10,000 horses to maintain the population levels.  These animals are then put into holding pastures.

Ideally, the horses get adopted by private farms and ranches.  But with the economic downturn, fewer people and companies have the resources or desire to adopt new horses.  Some years, BLM has only been able to find homes for about 20 percent of the horses they take in.

That’s led to a huge herd that Interior has to care for – and taxpayers have to pay for.  In fact, with roughly 40,000 horses now cared for by the government, per BLM data, that means there are more “wild” horses in captivity than actually in the wild.

In 2000, the cost of caring for the horses was $7 million.  This year, it’s estimated that cost may hit $60 million – roughly 75 percent of the total funding allotted to the BLM’s National Wild Horse and Burro Program.

That has left federal officials with a pressing issue: what to do with the horses and how to stop the flood of spending.

For doubling its program budget in the past four years – during the height of the recession – and with no end in sight to the increases, BLM wins this week’s Golden Hammer, a distinction handed out by the Washington Guardian to examples of runaway government spending.

Interior officials are trying to address the problem, though with slow results so far.  New Interior Secretary Sally Jewell commissioned the National Academy of Sciences to study the wild horse dilemma and see if larger populations than the estimated 26,000 could be supported.  The results of the study are due in June.

BLM is, in some ways, stuck between a rock and a hard place.  Taking the horses expends increasing amounts of taxpayer dollars.  But letting them run wild could overwhelm some parts of the U.S., where the horses could cause problems with farmland, ranches and roadways.  Interior data estimates that if left unchecked, the wild horse population would double every four years.

Part of the issue is that wild horses have no natural predators that could help keep populations in check in the wild.  Horses are not native to North America, but were brought over by European explorers in the 16th and 17th centuries.

In 1971, worried about declining populations nationwide, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, designed to protect and defend the animals.  

According to the act, horses are “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene.”

A 1978 amendment to the act allowed BLM to regulate appropriate levels of wild horse populations to protect the land from overgrazing.  Since then, their numbers have ballooned from an estimated 9,500 in 1971 to about 38,000 in 2013.

Wildlife advocates often say the amount of land wild herds are allowed to be on before running afoul of federal officials should be increased, which would support larger populations and help reduce the number cared for by BLM.  A 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office found that while BLM allows cattle or sheep on 160 million acres of federal land, it usually allows the wild horses and burros to tread just 29 million acres.

The government has started keeping more and more horses in temporary holding pens, which are increasingly becoming long-term.  In 2001, the Interior Department cared for 10,000 horses.  This year, that number is estimated to be 40,000.  

BLM officials said they are committed to finding “cost effective alternatives to long-term holding,” and that they will work with “other partners and stakeholders to find acceptable solutions, and will discuss any helpful legislative proposals with Congress.”

Meanwhile, fewer and fewer horses are getting adopted.

“BLM officials attribute the steady adoption decline in recent years to the decreasing demand for horses in general and increasing hay and fuel costs associated with their care,” GAO reported.

The increased funding officials are getting usually goes to building more housing, GAO investigators noted, treating the symptoms and not the roots of the population booms.

But the BLM currently has few options on what to do with its surplus herd.  Humanely slaughtering the animals often faces stiff opposition from animal rights activists and members of Congress.  And earlier this year, the BLM voluntarily implemented stricter rules surrounding the sale and adoption of horses after it was discovered that some horses may have been sold to a man who turned them into horse meat.

“The program is at a critical crossroads,” the GAO said. “Within the program’s existing budget, BLM cannot afford to care for all of the animals off the range, while at the same time managing wild horse and burro populations on the range.”

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