We’ve known for years that the wild horse and burro population growth on public land in the West is not sustainable, but little is being done about it.

A recent article in the online E&E News, which touts itself as the essential news source for energy and environment professionals, by Scott Streater paints an eye-opening on-the-ground picture of just how dire the situation is, especially in Nevada.

With a dateline of Eureka County, the piece opens with a glimpse of 100 head of wild horses gathered about a tiny pool of water around which most of the forage has long since been consumed by the sweltering day in July when reporter was given a tour.

“This is just not sustainable,” Ruth Thompson, Bureau of Land Management’s Nevada Wild Horse and Burro Program manager, tells the reporter while looking down into the valley. She explains that the edible grasses have been eaten down to the root, allowing invasive species such as cheatgrass, which is edible only for a brief period in the spring, to takeover and crowd out the native species.

Currently Nevada, according to the BLM, has more than 47,000 wild horses and burros on the range, though it can sustain less than 13,000. Nationally, there are 88,000 wild horses and burros, though the range can sustain less than 27,000. In addition, the BLM warehouses nearly 50,000 wild horses and burros on private pastures and in corrals at a cost of $50 million a year, which consumes most of the $66.7 million budgeted for the management of the wild horses and burros.

Unchecked by roundups or contraceptive measures, the populations of the feral beasts can double in just four years.

As for the cheatgrass supplanting edible forage, the E&E article quotes Dean Bolstad, who retired this past year as division chief of BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program, as saying, “And once you get there, you have lost the habitat for wildlife, and they probably can never be restored to a perennial grassland that provides diverse habitat for wildlife and all kinds of other multiple uses that BLM is responsible for.” That affects native wildlife such as mule deer, antelope and greater sage grouse.

Streater goes on to relate that in the past year BLM removed 11,472 horses from federal rangelands, 5,800 of those were rounded up in “emergency gathers” because of a lack of water or forage, but as many as 18,000 foals were born on the range in that year. A BLM official told the reporter that darting the mares with fertility drugs every year is simply not practical.

The number of wild horses and burros adopted each year has fallen to about 2,500 in recent years, though the BLM is now offering $1,000 incentive payments to those who adopt the animals and maintain certain conditions.

The situation on the range is dire for the horses and burros, as well as for native wildlife and cattle and sheep. Our representatives in Congress need to work toward a solution. And, yes, that solution might have to include what was called for in the original 1971 law protecting these animals: “The Secretary (of the Interior) shall cause additional excess wild free-roaming horses and burros for which an adoption demand by qualified individuals does not exist to be destroyed in the most humane and cost efficient manner possible,” though Congress has denied funding for euthanasia for years.

That would be better than having the animals starve and die of thirst after protracted suffering. — TM