Experts gather in Salt Lake to tackle wild horse overpopulation problem

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

FILE – Wild horses roam in the Cedar Mountain range on Thursday, July 18, 2013. A national summit on wild horse and burro management got underway Wednesday in downtown Salt Lake City, featuring a posse of experts examining the science behind the animals’ overpopulation and what probable solutions exist in the polarizing issue.

SALT LAKE CITY — Rick Danvir with the Western Landowners Alliance told a crowd of several hundred people Wednesday that he was lucky in his early association with the wild horse of the West, working on the ground to conserve the species and boost its numbers.

That was in the aftermath of a national act in 1971 to protect the dwindling wild horse and burro populations — which now dramatically eclipse federal management levels and speak emphatically to the success of the early conservation program.

"It seems the reward to good conservation is now you have to go and figure out how to manage them," Danvir said. "Good luck."

As of March, the Bureau of Land Management logged 72,614 wild horse and burros on rangelands in Western states — above the targeted goal of 26,674.

That total does not include the spring foal crop, and with the ability to increase their numbers between 15 and 20 percent each year, experts estimate there are 15,000 more animals scattered on nearly 27 million acres of public lands in 10 Western states, including Utah.

Keith Norris, with the National Horse and Burro Rangeland Management Coalition and the Wildlife Society, said the BLM spent $370 million over five years to manage a wild horse population that continued to increase.

In fiscal year 2016, the agency spent $50 million of its $80 million budget to pay for long-term holding of unadoptable animals.

Strapped for financial resources and managing animals that double in population every four to five years, the federal agency is mired in an untenable situation with no relief in sight.

Norris said a 2010 appropriations bill includes a section that forbids the destruction of healthy animals or commercial processing of any kind — such as for horse meat, which is a delicacy in some foreign markets.

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Wild horse advocates, who plan to protest outside the conference at noon Wednesday, say the real problem is horses have to compete with cattle for forage on the rangeland.

Remove the cattle, and you’re solving the problem of starvation or ill-nourished herds, they say.

Danvir, however, said that won’t work, given the speed that the animals reproduce.

"Removing cattle from public lands simply kicks the can down the road, delaying the problem of overpopulation" among wild horses and burros, he said.

The issue is a political flashpoint in the West, where ranchers and wildlife advocates say the wild horse population has been allowed to run amuck to the detriment of the species, wildlife and the ecosystem.

Utah lawmakers last year approved a legislation urging the federal government to allow the states to manage the animals, which are the only species not on the endangered list that remain outside state authority.

Members of Congress from Western states have also introduced legislation to give states greater authority over wild horses, including Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah.

Stewart was among many speakers to open the downtown session Wednesday.

About 130 groups are represented in the first-ever summit looking to address the wild horse issue. The summit was organized by Utah State University along with a steering committee featuring diverse members, including a representative from the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Ed Arnett, a wildlife biologist and the partnership’s senior scientist, said the overpopulation of wild horses and burros is concerning for sportsmen such as anglers, hunters and the entire outdoor recreation economy as whole.

Beyond the competition the animals bring for wildlife, too many horses on the rangeland impair ecosystems for animals struggling to thrive — including greater sage grouse.

"It is so painfully obvious given the statistics and the biology of animals," Arnett said. "The administrative options seem to be exhausted. Congress should allow the BLM to manage the population."

Those management options include a multi-pronged strategy outlined in presentations earlier Wednesday, including sterilization, humane euthanasia and commercial slaughter.

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