Wild horse demography: implications for sustainable management within economic constraints
Garrott, Robert A.
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Management of wild horse (Equus ferus caballus) populations on western U.S. rangelands has been a challenge since horses were given legal protection through the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFRHba) in 1971. Horses have no effective predators, and unmanaged populations can double in 4-5 years and triple in 6-8 years. In order to meet the multiple-use paradigm for managing public rangelands, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has limited horse population growth through the periodic capture and removal of animals. While the WFRHBA mandates disposal of captured horses through placement into private ownership and prompt destruction of any excess animals, administrative restrictions have prohibited the destruction of healthy horses for nearly the entire history of the management program. This has led to an ever-increasing number of unwanted horses maintained in captivity, which has required increasing Congressional appropriations. There are currently 44,000 horses in long-term captivity at an annual cost of approximately $50 million. Recently, Congress has denied requests from the BLM for further funding increases to support continued growth in the number of horses in long-term maintenance, obligating the BLM to dramatically curtail population management. Horse numbers on public rangelands are now rapidly increasing, and if left minimally managed will exceed the capacity of rangeland resources, resulting in serious degradation of these public lands for all other uses and eventually will result in large numbers of horses dying of starvation and dehydration. Horse advocates suggest this management crisis can be solved with the aggressive use of contraceptive technologies. Limitations in efficacy and the logistics of administering contraceptives indicate that contraceptives can only slow population growth rates, but alone cannot decrease numbers. The BLM and other stakeholders are pressing for authorization to destroy excess horses but are facing public and Congressional opposition, with the potential that the status quo continues. A sustainable wild horse and burro (E. asinus; WhB) management program could be achieved by a combination of reducing the on-range population and treating adequate numbers of horses remaining on rangelands with contraceptives to reduce subsequent population growth rates. Under this scenario, the freeroaming horse population would produce a modest annual increment of horses, which could be removed and readily placed into private ownership. It has taken nearly half a century for the wild horse problem to reach this critical point, and any transition to a sustainable program will take time and additional resources. The fundamental challenge to developing a sustainable program will be solving the problem of the fate of excess horses. The policy decisions confronting us are historic, challenging, and controversial with a real danger of not finding the resolve to chart a new course for the WHB Program. If we fail and continue with the current policies, then horses, native wildlife, all stakeholders, and our public rangelands will pay a heavy price.
Garrott, Robert A. . "Wild horse demography: implications for sustainable management within economic constraints." Human-Wildlife Interacions 12, no. 1 (April 2018): 46-57. Available at: https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/hwi/vol12/iss1/7