When passed in 1971, the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act protected wild horses living on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is part of the Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service, which is a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The BLM oversees roughly 245 million acres of public land in 12 western states and 700 million acres of sub-surface mineral estate. BLM lands are used for multiple purposes, including mining leases, energy development, livestock grazing and recreation. The Forest Service oversees 193 million acres of land in 44 states, and these lands are also used for multiple purposes, including livestock grazing, logging and recreation.
The BLM authorizes livestock grazing on virtually all BLM land in the lower 48 states, or 155 million of the 245 million total acres. By contrast, wild horses are restricted to just 26.9 million acres, --just 11 percent of BLM lands. Horses share that small fraction of BLM land with livestock, and the agency routinely allocates the majority of forage in designated wild horse Herd Management Areas to livestock, not wild horses.
Ranchers pay $1.69 per Animal Unit Month (AUM) to graze their livestock on BLM and Forest Service lands. (An AUM is the amount of forage necessary to sustain 1 cow/calf pair, 1 horse or 5 sheep for a month.) The 2014 AUM fee was $1.35, the lowest allowable under law. These fees are about 1/16th of market rate, thanks to our tax subsidies. (The average monthly lease rate for grazing on private lands in 11 western states in 2011 was $16.80 per head, according to the Congressional Research Service.)
BLM issues 17,869 permits to run livestock, authorizing a maximum of 12.5 million AUMs. The Forest Service issues 6,289 permits to livestock operators, authorizing a maximum of 8.5 million AUMs. That's a combined total of more than 24,158 permits and 21 million AUMs -- an equivalent of 1,750,000 cows or 8,750,000 sheep!
By contrast the government has set a maximum allowable level of just 26,500 for wild horses and burros!
Thanks to below-market grazing rates, the federal public lands grazing program costs taxpayers hundreds of millions annually. In addition to direct administrative costs, there are costs associated with programs to: 1) restore and repair of environmental damage caused by livestock grazing; kill predators, including coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats and other carnivores, at the request of ranchers; and 3) remove wild horses, which ranchers view as competition for cheap grazing on public lands.
The Center for Biological Diverstiy estimates that the federal public lands grazing program costs American taxpayers $500 million annually.
BLM: giving away the store to the livestock industry
As stated above, wild horses are restricted to 11 percent of BLM lands. Yet even on that small fraction of land designated as wild horse habitat, the BLM gives away the majority of resources to livestock. In HMA after HMA, the BLM authorizes anywhere from 3 to 20 times or more forage to private livestock than to federally protected wild horses. As a result of this unfair allocation of resources, the agency sets artificially low Allowable Management Levels (AMLs) for wild horses and claims that the horses are overpopulating when their numbers rise above these AMLs. For example, an HMA can have an AML of 100 and an estimated population of 300 horses and 1,500 cattle on 150,000 acres, and the BLM will say that the horses are overpopulating and need to be removed without ever addressing the environmental damage caused by extensive livestock grazing.
This policy of favoring private livestock over protecting wild horses continues despite the fact that livestock grazing on BLM land is authorized solely at the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior, whereas protection of wild horses is mandated by an act of Congress.
40 Years Later, Same Fight to Save Wild Horses
Today, as in Wild Horse Annie's day, the primary enemy of the wild horse remains the livestock industry, which views wild horses as competition for cheap, taxpayer-subsidized grazing on public lands. The National Cattelemen's Beef Association is a powerful presence in Washington and a key force behind the continued mass removal of wild horses from public lands. The myth perpetuated by the NCBA and the BLM is that wild horses are overpopulating -- overruning the West. In reality, wild horses are restricted to a tiny portion of public lands in the West and are outnumbered by at least 50-1 by private livestock.
The controversy over wild horses has raged for decades and will never be resolved until the unfair allocations of resources on our public lands is addressed. Wild horses and burros must receive a fairer allocation of resources on the small amount of public land designated as their habitat and their allowable population levels must be raised. The present wild horse and burro population -- estimated to be 31,500 wild horses and 5,800 burros -- could easily be accommodated by modest reallocations of resources in HMAs. These populations can then be managed on the range, using safe and humane birth control as an alternative to the roundups, saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming decade.
Grazing Fees: Overview and Issues, Congressional Research Service, June 20, 2012
On Wyoming's Range, Water is Scarce but Welfare is Plenty, TheAtlantic.com, July 9, 2012