Ken Salazar’s wild idea

Every secretary of the Interior Department for more than 35 years has had to deal with the consequences of the Free Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act. Those consequences have grown as the numbers of burros and wild horses have exploded on federal lands in the West. Previous Interior secretaries have bemoaned the problems the act has created — such as 30,000 unadoptable horses now being fed in Bureau of Land Management corrals because there are too many horses on most of the ranges. But Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar is the first Interior chief in many years to come up with a comprehensive approach for dealing with the wild horse problems.

Salazar’s proposal may not be perfect. But we applaud him for looking at the problem as a whole and trying to devise a plan to permanently deal with the wild horses, instead of seeking Band-Aid solutions that just exacerbate the problems.

The key problem is this: Wild horses have few natural predators, so on ranges where they are left to go unchecked, their populations have soared. Because each of these ranges can only carry a specific number of horses, the herd numbers have to be periodically reduced. That has generally been done by rounding up part of a herd, selecting some horses and putting them up for adoption.

Thousands of wild horses have found new homes that way. But many others cannot be adopted because they are too old or have some infirmity. They are among the thousands currently eating hay at taxpayers’ expense in BLM corrals in places like Nevada.

The BLM has the legal authority to euthanize wild horses, but the outcry from animal-rights groups and wild-horse organizations would be so great that the option has become a political impossibility.

Salazar’s program is two-fold. First, he has suggested the federal government spend $96 million to purchase land for two wild horse and burro preserves in the East and Midwest. He also wants to partner with private nonprofit organizations to acquire land for other preserves so that ultimately 25,000 of the horses now in corrals could be moved to preserves. One such private group might be created by the wife of billionaire T. Boone Pickens, who last year proposed to raise money and buy land for her own wild horse preserve.

Perhaps more importantly, Salazar wants an aggressive fertility control program for the wild horses to alleviate the continual problem of overpopulation. In that regard, the management of the Little Bookcliffs herd northeast of Grand Junction is ahead of the game.

“We used to get 30 to 40 foals a year,” said Jim Dollerschell, who is in charge of the BLM wild horse efforts in this region. But using dart guns that shoot a concoction which makes mares infertile for at least a year, and working with the local nonprofit group, Friends of the Mustangs, that number has dropped considerably. “Now, we only get 15 to 20 foals a year,” he said.

Until recently, the BLM conducted roundups of the Little Bookcliff herd almost every two years to keep the herd below the range carrying capacity of about 150 horses. With the fertility control, Dollerschell hopes now the roundup can be delayed to four years and perhaps longer.

We don’t know if Salazar will find congressional support for his ambitious plan to buy land for ranges, but his proposal to make fertility control a top priority is a must. Without it, far too many of the wild horses will end up living lives that are anything but wild in BLM corrals.


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