BLM Report Calls for Changes in Horse Adoption Program

BLM Report Calls for Changes in Horse Adoption Program

AP story unfair, director says

By: Staff  Date: 01/14/2012 Category: | Wildlife Journal |

The controversy

Following on the heels of an Associated Press investigation critical of horse and burro adoption practices, the US Bureau of Land Management has recommended changes in the organization and implementation of the program.

AP reporter Martha Mendoza wrote in early January that BLM employees abused the adoption system and that thousands of the horses rounded up on the range had been slaughtered. The US Department of Interior launched an investigation into the charges, and BLM chief Thomas Pogacnik denied them outright.

"The recent Associated Press article on the Bureau of Land management's wild horse adoption program gave readers the false impression that many of the animals are sent to slaughter," Pogacnik said. "This is flat-out wrong."

Pogacnik said that BLM employees abide by the same rules as the general public when adopting animals. He said that Mendoza spoke to many employees who had adopted animals but included only interviews that supported the idea that the program is corrupt.

BLM is the primary agency implementing the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971. The agency removes horses and burros from public lands where necessary for the health of the environment and the herds and offers them for adoption.

The last strategic plan for the program was activated in 1992. A review of the plan following severe drought and overgrazing in some parts of the range in 1995-96 was released at the end of January. Some recommendations of the review committee were

  • emphasize management of the rangeland and adaptability of the animals left in herds rather than concentrating on removing the most adoptable animals from the herds;
  • reevaluate the strategic plan every four or five years with the help of a resource advisory council;
  • improve reporting and evaluation procedures;
  • consider increasing fees; and
  • complete fertility studies on the herds.



The review committee included representatives from BLM, the Nevada Wild Horse Coalition, the US Department of Interior, the National Park Service, the National Forest Service, and the Nevada Division of Wildlife. Advisors included representatives from the American Horse Protection Association, Utah State University, Wild Horse Organized Assistance, the Lincoln County Public Lands Commission, and the National Cattleman's Association.

Following release of the report, BLM announced that competitive bidding can now be used to increase fees for the animals. The adoption fee is $125 for horses and $75 for burros, but managers are now authorized to conduct auction sales of the animals.

BLM also shifted control of the program from Nevada to Washington DC to avoid confusion between the Nevada operation and the national plan and improve communication between the national BLM office and the various state control programs.


The search for ecological balance

BLM manages about 42,000 wild horses and burros on public lands in several western states. These animals reproduce at a rate of about 18 percent per year and have no natural enemies through most of the range. The forage and water they share with domestic livestock cannot withstand unchecked population growth.

The agency conducts periodic roundups of horses, keeps those that are young enough for successful adoption, and turns the remainder of the healthy animals back onto the range. The goal is to limit the population so that balance is maintained between the horse and burro herds, cattle-grazing, wild animals, and the health of the range.

The evaluation report questioned the use of selective removal to accomplish these purposes. Although the 1992 plan did meet some of its objectives, "The plan focused on the selective removal of young horses, which are more adoptable than older animals, rather than on rangeland management of habitat and the adaptability of the animals. In some instances, this has resulted in skewed age and sex ratios in some herds, which, if continued on the long run, could harm the viability of the herd. The strategic plan's focus on selective removal and animal numbers has resulted in limited resources being left for habitat management and health of the land - the cornerstone of sustainable resource management."

The public lands are divided into herd management areas. In each area, BLM determines the appropriate management level of the herd to assure a thriving ecological balance, the biological and social needs of the herds, economics, genetic diversity, and the population at which resource deterioration would be expected to begin. However, the report found that disagreement among BLM jurisdictions, conflicting policies and events, and budgets restrictions hampered implementation of the plan and recommended that the bureau redouble its efforts to establish the management levels.

While selective removal has provided many young horses for adoption and improved the profile of the adoption program, the report noted that this strategy has drawbacks:

"In areas where BLM started with the number of horses exceeding the carrying capacity , application of selective removal has resulted in horse populations with age, sex, and social structures that may threaten their viability. In some instances, selective removal has prevented BLM from removing enough horses to achieve and maintain the appropriate management level."

The report recommended that selective removal be used unless the health of the herd and the range require different methods. In those cases, removal of more or fewer horses, special handling of older horses, and extra marketing for these horses would be preferred.

BLM has removed 165,281 horses and burros from the western rangelands since the first roundups in 1973. The first year, 23 horses were captured and all were adopted. In 1996, 7,369 horses and 1996 burros were captured and 6821 horses and 1253 burros were adopted. Peak year for captures was 1985 when 17,399 horses and 1560 burros were removed from the range. Best adoption year was 1987, when 11,621 horses and 1155 burros found new homes. Best year for horse adoptions was 1987; best year for burros was 1981 when 2495 were adopted.

The agency uses two methods to remove horses from the range: selective removal and gate cuts. Selective removal requires gathering all the horses in a management area together in corrals, selecting those that are younger than 10 years of age, and turning the remainder back out on the range. This method is expensive and leaves many horses with undesirable characteristics on the range, but it assures that the horses in the system are likely to be quickly adopted.

Gate cuts remove entire herds from the range. Although less expensive than selective removal, a gate cut includes horses that are difficult to adopt and therefore may need long-term care.

Unadoptable horses are not sent to slaughter, according to BLM. However, if an animal dies while in captivity, the body goes to a rendering plant.


The future


BLM is testing birth control as a method of slowing the growth of the herds. Treatment consists of injections of porcine zona pellucida, a non-invasive technique that interferes with fertility of the mare. The latest results indicate 90 percent success. The agency is working on an injection that will prevent conception for at least three years.

Once appropriate management levels are achieved for each area, emphasis should shift to physical improvements for the animals on the range, such as water supplies, fencing, herd management planning, population research, and increased research about animals in the wild.

Solutions are needed for the unadopted horses. Long term fertility control will not be available for mares for several years, and gelding the stallions may be risky to the animal. Turning the animals back on the range does nothing to remove grazing pressure or control herd growth.

The herds will stabilize to a total of about 30,000 animals. Once the populations are reduced to the optimum level for each area, the price of horses and burros will increase to fair market value, and auctions of BLM animals will become more common.


Wild horse and burro shows

  • 1997 Mustang and burro show, Horseman's Park, Las Vegas, Nevada. Date to be announced. contact (702) 452-5853 or (702) 438-5249
  • 6th Annual National Wild Horse and Burro Show, Livestock Events Center, Reno, Nevada, June 1997. Contact (702) 329-9665.
  • 8th Annual Kentucky Wild Horse and Burro Exposition, Kentucky Horse Park, Lexington, Kentucky, July 1997. Contact Shane Banks, Bruce Dawson, or Bill James, (601) 977-5405. Activities include resistance-free training demonstrations, wild horse and burro adoption (about 150 animals), a volunteer recognition cook-out, the Kentucky Horse Fair, performances by the Mustang Troop, and the Southeast Regional Mustang and Burro Show.


For more information about the BLM wild horse and burro program, visit the agency's website at

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All Authors Of This Article: | Norma Bennett Woolf |
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