Congress demands wild horse and burro plan from BLM

By Charlie Booher

Wild horses rounded up from public lands stand at a corral. Wild horses and burros occur on more than 27 million acres of public lands in the United States. ©BLMIdaho

When Congress passed the omnibus appropriations bill last month, legislators included a mandate for the Bureau of Land Management to provide a new wild horse and burro management plan. The mandate was joined by a $5.55 million cut to the program.

The statements accompanying the appropriations bill for 2019 said the House and Senate committees that oversee the Interior Department, including the BLM, were “extremely disappointed” in the agency’s failure to produce a comprehensive plan that was originally requested in the FY17 spending package. Legislators said they wanted a plan “to address the fast-rising costs of the Wild Horse and Burro program and overpopulation of wild horses and burros on the range,” and asserted that continued “failure to address these problems is irresponsible and will result in irreparable damage to the landscape and the welfare of the animals protected by the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act” of 1971.

Congress requested a plan from the BLM that:

  1. reduces the complexity and cost of contracting policies and procedures;
  2. eliminates unnecessary environmental reviews;
  3. simplifies and expands the use of partnerships and cooperative agreements;
  4. identifies statutory and regulatory barriers to implementing the plan; and
  5. has the goal of reducing costs while improving the health and welfare of wild horses and burros, and the range.

The statement directs the BLM to provide the plan within 30 days of enactment of the act, but it is still unclear if the deadline will be met. Until the BLM provides a comprehensive plan and corresponding legislative proposals, legislators said the appropriations committees will “maintain the existing prohibitions and reduce the resources available for the program.”

The BLM is working on the “final stages of developing a plan to Congress” describing “several management options aimed at putting the Wild Horse and Burro Program back on a sustainable and fiscally responsible track,” Amber Cargile, BLM’s acting national spokeswoman, told E&E News.

This strong statement expresses Congress’ continued frustration with the growth of wild horse and burro populations, the cost of sustaining current management practices and the political challenges facing the program. The administration’s recent budget proposals have also expressed a need for policy and management changes.

The House Appropriations Committee made changes to wild horse and burro management in its FY18 Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill in an attempt to improve the program’s outcomes, but this bill never made it to the Senate.\

“The status quo still isn’t working for our wild horses and burros, the ecology on the range, or the American taxpayers” Rep. Ken Calvert, R-California, chairman of the House appropriations subpanel on interior department spending told the Associated Press.

As of March 2017, the BLM estimated more than 73,000 wild horses and burros existed across 27 million acres of federal herd management areas in 10 western states. More than 45,000 additional horses and burros are held in off-range corrals and pastures. This is 90,000 more animals than the agency’s established population objective, known as the Appropriate Management Level, of less than 27,000. AML is set in land use management plans based on the health of the rangelands, and in balance with other uses on the range including wildlife and livestock grazing. When populations exceed this level, the ecologically feral species negatively impact the rangelands.

In 2016, The Wildlife Society testified at a House Natural Resources Subcommittee hearing, expressing the need for more active management of wild horse and burro populations. The National Wild Horse & Burro Advisory Board has also expressed frustrations with the program and made strong recommendations to change the current management paradigm at its previous meetings.

As a member organization of the National Horse and Burro Rangeland Management Coalition, The Wildlife Society submitted testimony to the board’s last meeting in October 2017, encouraging the use of multiple management tools to control on-range horse and burro populations. Read The Wildlife Society’s Issue Statement on Feral Horses and Burros in North America.

Charlie Booher is a Policy Communication Intern at The Wildlife Society. Read more of Charlie's articles.