Wild horse population has been growing 15-20% per year, and cost of maintaining captive horses is becoming unsustainable.
CAPTIVE "wild" horses will cost U.S. taxpayers $1 billion by 2030 if federal management approaches don't change, according to a new report by a pair of researchers who were part of a national committee that studied the issue.
A possible solution, they suggested, is contraceptive vaccines.
The report by researchers Madan Oli of the University of Florida wildlife ecology and conservation department and Robert Garrott with the Montana State University ecology department was recently published in the journal Science.
In 1971, Congress instructed federal agencies to protect and manage wild horses, monitor the population and remove horses when numbers exceeded established population goals.
According to Garrott and Oli, thousands of those horses are now kept not as the untamed creatures many associate with the Wild West but as domesticated livestock that live for decades on pastures and for which the federal government compensates the pasture owners.
The problem, Oli and Garrott said, is that the cost of maintaining the captive horses is increasingly unsustainable. From 2013 through 2030, caring for the horses will cost taxpayers $1.1 billion, Oli said, and $67 million annually after that.
The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) now reports 33,000 free-roaming horses in the western U.S., but even more — roughly 45,000 — are in short or long-term holding facilities.
When wild horse numbers grow too large, the horses are rounded up and taken to short-term holding facilities, where BLM puts many up for sale or adoption. If they are too ill for either, they are euthanized, but federal officials are barred from euthanizing healthy horses.
Healthy horses that are not sold or adopted are moved to long-term holding facilities, where they typically remain for the rest of their lives.
Garrott and Oli served on a National Research Council committee that concluded that if horse populations are left unmanaged, the number of horses on public lands will triple about every six years until food and water supplies eventually are stretched thin.
The wild horse population has been growing at an annual rate of between 15% and 20%, Oli said.
"If current management approaches continue, there will be very little money left in the BLM wild horse and burro budget to do anything else but care for horses in captivity," Oli said. "Rounding them up is pretty expensive, and at some point, nearly all of the budget would be consumed by horses in captivity. It will just be totally unsustainable to continue business as usual."
The researchers estimated that the 15-20% annual population increase in western horse herds could be cut in half if contraceptive vaccines were more widely used. Contraception for horses is labor intensive because it must be hand-injected. More research into new delivery methods could help, Oli said.
While the debate over wild horses has gone on for years, it is clear that something must be done, the researchers said.
"We need to think about what's ethical, what we want to do. The worst-case scenario is that we do nothing," Garrott said. "Simply not doing anything will result in a much, much harder decision in the future."