Time has come for solving wild horse problem

A gather of wild horses from the Beaty Butte Management Area, adjacent to the Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge in southern Oregon. The Bureau of Land Management has come up with four plans for managing wild horses.

The concept of wild horses running as free as the wind across the open spaces of the West is admittedly appealing. The horses, which over the centuries have become a part of the Western landscape, offer a glimpse of the old days.

But the difference between the concept of wild horses and the reality is vast.

The reality is the population of invasive wild horses is so far out of control that they damage the land, streams and rivers, causing harm to the habitat of native species such as greater sage grouse, pronghorn, deer, elk, fish and bighorn sheep. By destroying range land and stream banks, the horses reverse any progress that has been made by land managers and ranchers aimed at restoring habitat.

Ranchers say the wild horses have forced federal land managers to curtail livestock grazing in some areas. They fear the spiraling horse population will only mean more restrictions — and damage to range land.

But there’s an even darker side to leaving wild horses unmanaged in the West. Just last week in Arizona, more than 100 wild horses died, the victims of the drought that has overcome parts of the state. More horses will die of thirst and starvation as the drought continues and the land cannot sustain them.

Elsewhere, officials with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management have struggled with the overwhelming number of horses. The estimated wild horse population has grown to 86,000 and ranchers say it could as much as double every four years. BLM has rounded up tens of thousands of horses, but without birth control and other efforts the population will continue to grow out of control. The cost of keeping horses in BLM holding facilities is estimated at $1 billion for their lifetime.

The BLM has come up with a plan — actually, four plans — for reducing the wild horse population to 26,715, which they figure is a manageable and sustainable number. The plans include a variety of tactics, including the sale of horses without restriction, adoption, contraception and sterilization. One even suggests giving as much as $1,000 to anyone who adopts a horse.

Because Congress has the ultimate say on how the BLM will proceed, it’s difficult to tell which option — or combination of options — will be used.

We urge Congress to approve an effective combination that will help BLM managers get the wild horse problem under control as quickly as possible.

Clearly, something needs to be done with the wild horses, because what’s already been done hasn’t worked.