Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Wild horse population out of control; citizens using birth-control darts, idea to which feds are warming

Controlling wild horses in the West has become a vexing problem for the federal government, which has long been tasked with keeping their numbers in check so they don't overgraze and out-compete livestock and native species. "The animals exist in a sort of legal and cultural gray area, caught between different mandates for their management," Dave Philipps of High Country News reports. To many, they represent independence "that once defined the frontier;" but they are "technically feral -- non-native transplants, like wild hogs or knapweed," he writes. (HCN photo by Melissa Farlow: BLM horse roundup)

About 37,000 wild horses roam parts of 10 Western states. That is 10,000 more horses than the land can support, according to the Bureau of Land Management. They have no natural predators anymore, leaving them to "outstrip population goals designed to protect the range," Philipps writes. Slaughter and hunting aren't viable options because mention of slaughter creates public outrage, so the BLM regularly removes thousands of wild horses through helicopter roundups. Horses that aren't adopted are placed in "holding systems," which is a network of government feedlots and private pastures. The horses remain there until other plans can be made. More mustangs live in government custody today than in the wild, Philipps reports.

The BLM spends 7 percent of its budget, or $76 million, controlling wild horses -- three times what it spends to protect the 211 endangered species on its land -- and is also running out of room to hold horses. Ranchers, hunters and some environmentalists are frustrated with the agency's management because it isn't controlling numbers at a fast enough pace, Philipps reports. But wild-horse advocates feel the law isn't adequately protecting the animals. Meanwhile, horse lovers across the West are arming themselves with dart guns loaded with drugs that make mares infertile for up to a year, hoping to "end the need for both roundups and the holding system by reining in the population at the source," an idea that is slowly gaining BLM support, Philipps writes.

High Country News is available by subscription, but a 30-day free trial can be accessed here.

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