Wild horses and burros have been a part of America’s history since the 16th century when they were brought to North America by early Spanish explorers. Dispersed by Native Americans, and released on the public domain by the U.S. Cavalry, farmers, ranchers, and others, free-roaming wild horses and burros have become a symbol of freedom and America’s pioneer spirit.
By the mid-1900’s wild horses and burros were rapidly being displaced as farmlands and communities replaced native prairies in America’s heartland. Some found sanctuary in the arid western rangelands and the deserts of the Southwest, but their numbers became perilously low. So low that Congress found these "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West" were in danger of being lost forever. In 1971, Congress called on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to protect and manage America’s remaining wild horses and burros on the areas of public lands in the West where they then existed.
Records indicate only 17,000 wild horses and 8,000 burros remained in 10 western states when Congress unanimously passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (the Act) in 1971. The result of this landmark conservation bill was dramatic. The population of free-roaming horses and burros rebounded, in some places exceeding the land’s capacity to sustain them. In areas, water and year-round vegetation was too scarce, or the public land was too scattered. Conflicts with private landowners or other uses of public land resulted.
In 1976 (and again in 1978), amidst fears of overgrazing and damage to the rangelands by horses and burros if their populations could not be effectively controlled, Congress amended the Act to authorize the BLM to use helicopters to gather and remove excess wild horses and burros to keep their numbers in a "thriving natural ecological balance" on the public lands. While many of these animals are placed in private care through the BLM’s Adopt a Horse (or Burro) Program, adoption rates have not kept pace with the number gathered. As a result, the BLM is currently holding more than 35,000 excess horses in short-term corrals or contracted long-term pastures.
There is increasing concern about the BLM’s current management of the Wild Horse and Burro Program, which involves gathering excess animals, finding as many homes for the animals as possible through adoptions, and placing remaining unadopted horses in long-term pastures. In the past few years, the public has expressed growing opposition to gathers, limited support for fertility control, and escalating concern about the use of helicopters and the humane handling and treatment of animals. The BLM is being asked to consider alternative options for the long-term management of America’s wild horses and burros. Most understand that continuing to spend more and more of the taxpayers’ money to care for greater numbers of unadopted wild horses each year is not a sustainable solution.
In fiscal year (FY) 2009, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the budget increases necessary to pay for caring for so many horses were not sustainable and threaten to overwhelm the program. During FY 2009, the BLM spent almost $30 million - about 70% of the agency’s appropriated budget for the Wild Horse and Burro Program - to humanely care for unadopted wild horses. This left less money to properly manage wild horses and burros on the range in the 10 western states and has made the BLM’s goal of preserving and maintaining healthy wild horses and burros on healthy rangelands increasingly difficult to attain.
Following the issuance of the GAO Report, Congress directed the BLM to prepare and publish a new comprehensive long-term plan and policy for management of wild horses and burros. In response, the BLM initiated a dialogue with Congress and the public about implementation of the Act, including its provisions that require certain categories of unadopted excess wild horses (or burros) to be euthanized or sold without limitation. The Secretary of the Interior and the BLM have stated that euthanasia of healthy excess animals or their sale without limitation will not be considered and are seeking the public’s help to find other long-term solutions.