U.S. Bureau of Land Management Deputy Director Henri Bisson said Monday there is an overpopulation of wild horses on public lands and the agency can no longer afford to care for the numbers of mustangs that have been rounded up. The number of horses adopted by the public has dropped off, leaving the BLM with more animals than it can care for, he said.
One option would be to stop all roundups - something the agency said would lead to "ecological disaster."
"The other option is to use some combination of the (adoption program) and euthanasia, which would be really difficult to do," Bisson told The Associated Press.
"Our goal is supposed to be about healthy horses on healthy ranges. But we are at the point we need to have a conversation with people about pragmatically what can we do given the financial constraints of our program to meet the goals we have," he said before meeting with area horse advocates.
Bisson was in Reno to brief the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board. He said there are 32,000 wild horses on the range in 10 Western states. About half of those are in Nevada.
BLM has set a target "appropriate management level" of horses at 27,000.
Some 33,000 more horses are in holding facilities, where most are made available for adoption. But those deemed too old or otherwise unadoptable are sent to long-term holding facilities to live out their lives - some for 15 to 20 years.
Last week the BLM said it was seeking bids from people around the country to provide pasture and care for 500 to 2,500 horses taken from the range that are considered unadoptable.
Caring for so many animals is crippling the agency's budget, Bisson said.
Last year about $22 million of the entire horse program's $39 million budget was spent on holding horses in agency pens. Next year the costs are projected to grow to $26 million with an overall budget that is being trimmed to $37 million, Bisson said.
Continuing current practices would require a budget of $58 million next year, escalating to $77 million in 2012, BLM estimated.
"We have a responsibility to balance the budget, so we are going to have to make some tough choices," Bisson said. "We don't want to do this at the last minute. So we need to have a conversation with horse advocates and try to share the pain a little bit so people understand that if we have to make those tough changes it's not because we want to."
The horse management program had been successful until recently, according to the agency. But in the face of an economic downturn that means higher costs for fuel as well as feed, adoption rates have dropped off significantly over the past year with no improvement in sight, Bisson said.
"I think the high price of energy, the economy, the price of hay is having a huge impact on our program. People across America now need to make a choice: Do I buy another horse or buy gas for my pickup?" Bisson said.
Bisson said none of the alternatives will be popular.
If roundups are ended he expects an outcry from horse protection advocates and from sheep and cattle ranchers who see the mustangs as competition for feed on the open range. If horses are euthanized, the outrage will come from horse protection groups, he said.
"Those are difficult choices to make," Bisson said. "But the law allows us to utilize those choices or some combination of that."
At least three roundups are planned in the coming weeks to remove about 1,700 wild horses in Nevada, where the BLM says ongoing drought has left dwindling forage and water for an overabundance of animals.