Mustangs rounded up in the fall of 2019 near Challis, Idaho. The mares were treated with fertility control drugs and released. (New York Times photo by Hilary Swift)
The Bureau of Land Management has been trying to reduce the number of wild horses and burros on public lands in the West by rounding them up, but there are two problems with that approach: "It hasn’t been able to round up nearly enough horses to limit the wild population. And it doesn’t know what to do with the ones it has managed to capture," Dave Philipps reports for The New York Times.

Once the government captures the horses, it has to feed and care for them. "The costs and frictions of having so many animals on the government’s hands — 49,000 at last count — have pushed the whole wild horse program toward collapse," Philipps reports. "The rented pastures and feed lots where they are kept now devour more than two-thirds of the program’s budget, leaving little money for anything else, including looking for ways to get the bureau out of its current fix."

The bureau has reduced roundups in recent years because of the cost, but that gave the horses and burros more room to expand. Though 7,300 horses were captured in 1029, an estimated 17,000 foals were born. "There are now about 100,000 wild horses and burros on public lands — more than at any time since the days of the Old West. The government reckons the land can sustain only about 27,000," Philipps reports. "Bureau officials warn that the mustang herds are a looming catastrophe for the land, and there is no cheap or obvious solution. Capturing all the excess horses and caring for them in storage for the rest of their lives could cost up to $3 billion. Doing nothing may prove costly, too."

However, wild-horse welfare groups say there is no overpopulation, and that the government is lowballing its estimate of how many horses the land can support because it's serving the interests of cattle ranchers, Philipps reports.

In the 1980s, the BLM said it addressed the problem by rounding up horses and finding them adoptive homes, but news media discovered that most of the adopted horses were actually being slaughtered at a profit for BLM employees. Modern-day legislative support for slaughtering horses has been "widely unpopular," Philipps reports. Many have suggested that the agency would be more successful by focusing more on administering birth control drugs instead of doing the roundups.

The BLM says it can create a sustainable program if Congress gives it more money. Congress has approved such funding three times in the past 30 years, but ballooning costs and animal-welfare lawsuits have made such approval complicated. "The bureau is in talks to open two huge feedlots to hold thousands of horses. But it is unclear if Congress is willing to spend billions to store unwanted horses, especially if an economic downturn drains public funds," Philipps reports.