“They are a symbol of the American West, but do we need 35,000 symbols of the American West?”
Nathaniel Messer, professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Missouri, quoted in the NYT in September 2010.
Horses are well habituated to much of the North American landscape. After all, it was in the forests and open plains of what’s now the USA that the horse as we know it evolved. Lately, with few predators to trouble them, they’ve been thriving at such a rate that they create problems for landowners and ranchers, and now the government.
The American wild horse or mustang is the descendent of equines that have gone feral in the US since the first arrival of the Conquistadors. They have no real “type” as a breed and, thanks to the efforts of 20th-century campaigners, are permitted to roam free on public lands as “an integral part of the natural system”. The government authority in charge of the herd of 33,000 or so animals is the Bureau of Land Management or BLM. If you want to know more about the back story of the mustang and the laws that were hammered out to protect it, I recommend Deanne Stillman’s excellent Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West.
The BLM are authorised to remove horses from the wild in order to prevent overpopulation and resulting environmental damage. Regular round ups funnel horses to short-term holding facilities where they are sorted into adoptable and unadoptable (the unadoptable are humanely destroyed). Some horses go from the short-term facilities to new homes as domestic animals. Most go to long-term facilities, where they remain, often indefinitely. The BLM pays for their care, and as many of these horses will live in the longterm facilities until their natural death, it makes for some pretty expensive “wild” horses.
A report published today by Robert A Garrott (Montana State University) and Madan K Oli (University of Florida) in Science makes it clear that what the BLM are doing is utterly unsustainable. The budget for the National Wild Horses and Burros Program clocked in at $19.8 million in 2000, and, despite the Credit Crunch and government cutbacks, was a mighty $74.9 million in 2012, with 60% being spent on the “wild” mustangs in those short- and long-term holding facilities.
Garrott and Oli drew on the records of 165,459 horses that have been dewilded by the BLM for their sums. It will take some 30 years for all the captive horses to live out their lifespans and die naturally, and it will cost the BLM approximately $449 million (with allowance for inflation) to maintain them. Total expenses for these and new horses taken from the wild would hit $1.1 billion between 2013 and 2030, and after that it would cost $67 million a year to keep all those publicly owned horses.
The BLM is already slowing down its round ups due to lack of funding, which will of course lead to a larger wild population even though water and forage are running low in some areas due to drought. Garrott and Oli endorse the use of “effecive vaccines that prevent pregnancy in both captive and free-ranging mares for 1 to 3 years”. This, they calculate, would halve the population growth and save $16,110 in maintenance for every horse, or $1 million per 62 horses. Fewer horses would require removal from public land, and fewer horses would be in short-term or long-term holding facilities. Rosiest of scenarios: the number of horses removed might even match the number of willing adoptive homes.
Of course, any contraceptive programme would mean more distressing round-ups for the wild herds, but, as Garrott and Oli rather bleakly point out, this would be preferable to the current Australian situation, where once more there are proposals to reduce outsize herds by gunning them down from helicopters.