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Message from BLM Director Bob Abbey

The Bureau of Land Management’s top priority is to ensure the health of the public lands so that the species depending on them – including the nation’s wild horses and burros – can thrive. To achieve that end, the BLM’s wild horse and burro program must be put on a sustainable course that benefits the animals, the land, and the American taxpayer.

BLM Director Bob Abbey

BLM Director Bob Abbey served eight years as the agency's State Director in Nevada, where most wild horses live.

As directed by Congress under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, the BLM protects, manages, and controls wild horses and burros that roam Western public rangelands. The Bureau manages these iconic animals on 26.9 million acres of BLM-managed Western rangeland as part of the agency's overall multiple-use mission across 245 million acres of public lands. 

When Congress passed the 1971 law, it found that wild horses and burros – those Living Legends of Western history – were “fast disappearing from the American scene” because of their lack of legal protection. Now, nearly 40 years after that landmark law was enacted, these special animals are firmly established and experiencing robust population growth under Federal protection. In fact, wild horse and burro herds, which have virtually no natural predators, grow at a rate of about 20 percent a year, which means herds can double in size every four years.

Impacts from Overpopulated Herds
Because of this rapid growth, the BLM must remove thousands of wild horses and burros from the range each year to protect public rangelands from the environmental impacts of herd overpopulation. Currently, the Western rangeland free-roaming population of 38,500 horses and burros exceeds by nearly 12,000 the number that the BLM has determined can exist in balance with other public rangeland resources and uses. The ecosystems of public rangelands, which provide habitat for wildlife, are simply not able to withstand the impacts resulting from overpopulated herds.
As former Director of the BLM's State Office in Nevada, where most wild horses live, I know first-hand the need to protect the land on which these treasured animals roam. Without healthy rangelands, wild horses and burros cannot thrive. Moreover, they cannot even survive when range conditions – which are affected by drought, wildfire, and climate change – deteriorate beyond a certain point.


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The need to gather and remove horses and burros from the range, I would note, is fully recognized by Congress in the 1971 law. Section 1333 of the law mandates that once the Secretary of the Interior “determines...on the basis of all information currently available to him, that an overpopulation exists on a given area of the public lands and that action is necessary to remove excess animals, he shall immediately remove excess animals from the range so as to achieve appropriate management levels.”

GAO Finding: “Critical Crossroads”

When excess horses and burros are removed, the BLM feeds and cares for these animals in short-term corrals and long-term pastures while trying to place as many as possible into good private care through adoptions or sales. Since 1971, the Bureau has adopted out more than 225,000 wild horses and burros.

While the BLM is working hard to boost adoptions, the public’s demand for adoptable wild horses has declined sharply in recent years, leaving 41,700 horses and burros (as of April 2011) in corrals and pastures that must be kept operating at a cost that exceeds half of the entire Wild Horse and Burro Program budget.  (Animals in holding, keep in mind, retain their “wild” status and remain under the protection of the BLM, which does not sell or send any horses or burros to slaughter.)

So the BLM finds itself in the predicament of needing to gather overpopulated herds from the Western range each year while its holding costs keep rising – with no end in sight. Recognizing this unsustainable situation, the Government Accountability Office, in a report issued in October 2008, found the Bureau to be at a “critical crossroads” because of spiraling off-the-range holding costs and its limited management options concerning unadopted horses. 

Salazar Wild Horse Initiative

In response, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and I announced on October 7, 2009, a new and sustainable way forward for managing our nation’s wild horse horses and burros.

In that announcement, we recommended applying new strategies aimed at balancing wild horse and burro population growth rates with public adoption demand to control holding costs.  This effort would involve slowing population growth rates of wild horses on Western public rangelands through the aggressive use of fertility control, the active management of sex ratios on the range, and perhaps even the introduction of non-reproducing herds in some of the BLM’s existing Herd Management Areas in 10 Western states.

We recommended the establishment of new wild horse preserves across the nation, particularly on the productive grasslands of the Midwest and East, that could be a home for thousands of horses that the BLM currently holds in short-term corrals and long-term pastures.

We also recommended managing the new preserves either directly by the BLM or through cooperative agreements between the BLM and private non-profit organizations or other partners to reduce the Bureau’s off-the-range holding costs.

And we recommended showcasing certain herds on public lands in the West that warrant distinct recognition with Secretarial or possibly congressional designations.

This set of proposals served as a starting point for finding the most viable approach to protecting and managing America’s iconic wild horses and burros.  This effort, which continues with public input, seeks nothing less than ensuring healthy herds of wild horses and burros thriving on healthy public rangelands, both now and for generations to come.