Everyone, including members of Congress and Native American tribes, wants fewer wild horses on Western lands and tribal reservations. But there is little agreement on how the number should be reduced.
The wild horses come from horses that were brought to America from Spain in the 16th century.
By 1971, the number of wild horses had dropped sharply. So Congress passed a law to save them. Since then, the number of wild horses has increased three times in size. Experts predict there will be 115,000 wild horses by 2020.
An average adult wild horse eats more than two-and-a-half kilograms of grass and drinks 75 liters of water a day.
As a result, non-native plants begin growing in the affected areas. The horses’ actions have also caused soil erosion around water sources, threatening water quality.
Gillian Lyons is a wildlife expert at The Humane Society of the United States.
She said, “Originally, when the 1971 act passed, it allowed the [Bureau of Land Management] to destroy healthy horses…if populations grew too large.”
Since 1994, except for one year, the BLM has been prevented from destroying wild horses. The agency now captures and places them in holding facilities. A few horses are adopted, but not many. It costs about $50 million a year to care for the captured animals.
President Donald Trump wants to cut the BLM budget by $10 million in 2018. If Congress approves the plan, the BLM would have to find other ways to manage horse populations.
“They’re going to do that in a couple of ways,” said Lyons. “One is by reducing any use of fertility control, which they use barely any of now. And the other way is by getting rid of horses in holding facilities.”
Recently, a House committee voted to permit the BLM to kill the horses. But a Senate committee voted against another bill that would lift the ban on horse killing.
Native American tribes have struggled with the problem for years. Some support capturing the animals. But others, including leaders of the tribes, say the animals should be treated well and not killed.
The Northwest Tribal Horse Coalition is made up of five small groups and tribes in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. It says in the short term controlling the number of wild horse births will not stop overgrazing. It supports the slaughter of horses at “humane facilities.”
An estimated 48,000 wild horses live on the Navajo Nation’s 7,000 square kilometers in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.
Duane “Chili” Yazzie is the president of the Nation in Shiprock.
Yazzie has started a horse capture program he considers more humane. The program would euthanize sick and old wild horses and sterilize healthy ones before returning them to the wild. He is also looking to train them as farm animals.
I’m Jonathan Evans.