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Tens of Thousands of Wild Horses Are Causing a Crisis Out West

If birth control and retirement ranches don't do the trick, will Americans have to get used to eating horse meat?
August 27, 2013, 1:15pm

Photo via Flickr

What’s the American West if not a place where mustangs run wild and free through the open land? Unfortunately, the post-Cowboy 21st century reality of the situation is less idyllic. There are far too many horses the government can manage and protect—some 33,000 animals running wild, and the number is increasing by up to 20 percent every year, on course to cost taxpayers $1 billion a decade from now.

According to a new report from the University of Florida and Montana State University, published last week in the journal Science, horse overpopulation out West is “at a critical junction.” At this rate, the multitude of mustangs will eventually destroy the natural ecosystem, degrade rangelands, and deplete resources for other native species. Horse deaths from starvation and dehydration will become common—in troves during times of drought, the report says.

That's the grim situation in Australia's outback, which is overrun with more than 400,000 horses. The herds are destroying the land, suffering from lack of food and water, even posing a danger to humans. The problem has gotten so out of control, the Australian government is considering culling the animals by the tens of thousands.

The task of protecting and managing the horse population in order to avoid a similar fate in America falls on the Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the US Department of the Interior. Since the government mandates the population be kept at a manageable 23,000, the BLM has been rounding up horses and keeping them in private “retirement” ranches, where they lead captive lives until adopted or bought by private citizens.

The trouble is, this plan won’t work for much longer. There are thousands more horses entrapped in feedlots than there are people to adopt them—some 45,000 captive horses on top of the 33,000 roaming free. The federal government is out of money to maintain the ranches. The huge expense has jumped from almost $20 million to $75 million in two years, more than 60 percent of the BLM’s allotted horse budget. (Another 11 percent is spent on capturing and removing the animals from public lands, and 10 percent on adoption programs, according to the report.)

"At some point, nearly all of the budget would be consumed by horses in captivity. It will just be totally unsustainable to continue business as usual," study co-author Madan Oli wrote in a news release.

The BLM uses a helicopter to gather wild horses in Nevada, via Wikimedia.

It’s a conundrum, and one confounded by the fact that unlike, say, deer or hogs, which are also overpopulated, Americans aren't at all keen on killing horses. And we’re even less keen on eating them.

Though it’s commonplace in Asia and parts of Europe, eating horse meat is highly taboo in the US. But with herds overrunning the West by the thousands, some argue that embracing the new form of food could be the best option. A recent Bloomberg editorial wrote:

Lifting the bans on slaughtering wild mustangs and introducing them into a well-supervised and humane slaughter program seems the logical way to stop the population explosion and ease the BLM's cash crunch. Would you rather have these creatures overwhelming their ecosystem and dying of starvation, or served as tartare with a quail egg at your corner brasserie?

A similar argument is being made in Australia, where they figure culling horses in a humane way is better than leaving them to suffer from starvation, and harming the environment on top of it. But even if public perception on the matter changed in the US, the legal landscape is a mess. Slaughtering horses for meat is still illegal, and the animals doomed to that fate must be shipped to Mexico or Canada. The debate is being played out in Washington.

At a loss for how to cut the numbers back, the BLM has also tried to slow the population boom by giving the horses birth control. Unfortunately, this approach also has its problems.

One, it's a logistic nightmare. The agency uses a porcine zona pellucida vaccine, which must be injected by hand. This means the wild horses must be rounded up every year, which is no small task. Two, there's no evidence so far that the contraception is effective. The BLM has been administering the vaccine since 2004, so far to more than 4,562 mares, “but significant reductions in the rate of population increase have not yet been apparent,” the agency’s website explains.

Lastly, even if birth control does slow the birth rate, it still doesn't reduce the current bloated population—there are 10,000 more horses than the federally mandated limit running wild. “We need to think about what’s ethical, what we want to do,” wrote study co-author Robert Garrott. “The worst-case scenario is that we do nothing. Simply not doing anything will result in a much, much harder decision in the future.”