By Martin Griffith, Associated Press
RENO, Nevada — Federal land managers are under fire from animal welfare activists for seeking extra holding space for wild horses removed from western rangelands.
With current facilities nearing capacity, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is accepting bids until Aug. 29 from contractors interested in either operating short-term corrals in 31 states in the Midwest and East or long-term pastures.
After removing horses from the range, the bureau places them in short-term facilities until they are either adopted or shipped to pastures in the Midwest where they spend the rest of their lives. The agency routinely thins what it calls overpopulated herds on public land.
BLM officials, in a statement Thursday, said they plan to open "multiple" short-term corrals that can handle at least 150 horses each in various states along and east of the Mississippi River. They also seek one or more long-term pastures that can accommodate from 100 to 5,000 mustangs each.
The bureau has not yet awarded contracts for bids it received earlier this year from contactors interested in running short-term corrals in 17 states in the West and Midwest.
Bureau spokesman Tom Gorey said the total number of new holding facilities and their cost would depend on the number and quality of bids submitted. About two-thirds of the agency's budget covers holding costs.
"We want to get out of the holding business, but at the moment that's not possible," Gorey told The Associated Press. "The bottom line is we have to make sure we have enough off-range holding for horses that are removed."
Budget constraints are prompting the bureau to remove just 2,400 wild horses and burros from the range during the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, down from 4,176 in 2013 and 8,255 in 2012. The vast majority of animals targeted for removal are horses.
But horse advocates criticized the agency's plans for more holding space, saying it continues to "stockpile" horses at a growing cost to taxpayers with about as many mustangs now living in holding facilities as on the range.
"The BLM continues to refuse to reform its broken wild horse program," said Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. "The agency is intent on sticking American taxpayers with the bill for rounding up and warehousing captured mustangs instead of listening to the scientists and the American public, and humanely managing wild horses and burros on the range."
Gorey said activists' demands to halt the removal of horses from the range are unrealistic because herds grow at an average rate of 20 percent a year and can double in size every four years.
According to the latest figures provided by the BLM, a total of 49,209 horses and burros freely roamed 10 Western states as of March 1, the vast majority of them mustangs. That estimate exceeds by more than 22,500 the number the BLM has determined can exist in balance with other public rangeland resources and uses.
Off the range, there were 47,272 wild horses and burros in short-term corrals and long-term pastures as of July 30, the agency said.
Ann Novak of the California-based group Protect Mustangs accused the bureau of inflating horse numbers to justify their removal from the range to accommodate ranching, mining and oil and gas interests.
"The truth is we never see an overpopulation of wild horses on public land," she said. "Overpopulation is a farce made to milk Congress for more money to clear public land for industrialization."