WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today proposed a national solution to restore the health of America's wild horse herds and the rangelands that support them by creating a cost-efficient, sustainable management program that includes the possible creation of wild horse preserves on the productive grasslands of the Midwest and East.
“The current path of the wild horse and burro program is not sustainable for the animals, the environment, or the taxpayer,” Salazar said in a letter outlining his proposals to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and eight other key members of Congress with jurisdiction over wild horse issues. Salazar said he is “proposing to develop new approaches that will require bold efforts from the Administration and from Congress to put this program on a more sustainable track, enhance the conservation for this iconic animal, and provide better value for the taxpayer.”
Bob Abbey, Director of Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM), commended the Secretary for his initiative, saying, “The proposals we are unveiling today represent a forward-looking, responsive effort to deal with the myriad challenges facing our agency's wild horse and burro program.” Abbey added, “We owe wild horses and burros on Western rangelands high-quality habitat. We owe the unadopted wild horses and burros in holding good care and treatment. And we owe the American taxpayer a well-run, cost-effective wild horse program. Today's package of proposals will achieve those ends.”
The challenges to the BLM associated with maintaining robust wild horse populations in the West have been recognized by the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has warned that gathering and holding costs have risen beyond sustainable levels and directed the BLM to prepare a long-term plan for the program. The Government Accountability Office also found the program to be at a “critical crossroads,” affirmed the need to control off-the-range holding costs, and recommended that the BLM work with Congress to find a responsible way to manage the increasing number of unadopted horses. In response to Congressional direction, Salazar's proposals aim to achieve a “truly national solution” to a traditionally Western issue.
In four decades under the BLM's protection, wild horses that were fast disappearing from the American scene have returned to rapid growth. “As wild horses have no natural predators and herds grow quickly,” Salazar said in his letter, “more than 33,000 wild horses live in 10 western states. Unfortunately, arid western lands and watersheds cannot support a population this large without significant damage to the environment.”
The BLM works to achieve an ecological balance on the range by removing thousands of wild horses and burros from public rangelands each year and then offering them for adoption. Unadopted animals are cared for in short-term corrals and long-term pastures. With the sharp decline in wild horse adoptions in recent years because of the economic downturn, the Bureau now maintains nearly 32,000 wild horses and burros in holding, including more than 9,500 in expensive short-term corrals. In Fiscal Year 2008, the cost of holding and caring for these animals exceeded $27 million – or three-fourths of the FY 2008 enacted funding level of $36.2 million for the entire wild horse and burro program. In the most recent fiscal year (2009), which ended September 30, holding costs were approximately $29 million, or about 70 percent of the total 2009 enacted wild horse and burro program budget of $40.6 million.
A key element of the Secretary's plan, designed to address concerns raised by the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Government Accountability Office, would designate a new set of wild horse preserves across the nation. Citing limits on forage and water in the West because of persistent drought and wildfire, Salazar said the lands acquired by the BLM and/or its partners “would provide excellent opportunities to celebrate the historic significance of wild horses, showcase these animals to the American public, and serve as natural assets that support local tourism and economic activity.” The wild horse herds placed in these preserves would be non-reproducing.
In his letter, Salazar also proposed:
Noting that his proposals are subject to Congressional approval and appropriations, Salazar said he and Director Abbey look forward to discussing them with members of Congress “as we work together to protect and manage America's ‘Living Legends.'”