The Government Accountability Office released a report in June, titled “Information on the U.S. Horse Population.” They reported there could be as many as 9.2 million equines — horses, burros and mules — in the United States (in 2005). This included free-roaming horses, wild horses and burros on certain U.S. public lands and feral horses on tribal or other lands.
The GAO had been asked by two Congressional committees to review issues related to horse welfare. This report covered the size of the U.S. horse population, the available options for managing the U.S. horse population, and the types of impacts, if any, that free-roaming horses have on the environment.
The report found at least 200,000 free-roaming equines on both federal and tribal lands. Data suggests that the number of wild horses on public lands and in holding facilities has more than doubled in the past 16 years, to more than 110,000 in 2016. The GAO uses the term wild horses for these equines since they are managed under the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act, which uses this definition.
It also found more than 90,000 feral horses residing on certain tribal lands in 2017. In this case, the GAO uses the term feral horses as that definition is addressed by state law. These horses are unwanted and unclaimed free-roaming horses found on public lands not designated for wild horses, or on private or tribal lands. Feral horses are not protected under the Wild Horse and Burro Act. Data from the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation suggest that the feral horse population on Washington’s Yakama lands State tripled from less than 3,000 in 2005 to almost 10,000 in 2015.
The report also covered managing equine populations and found several challenges, including finding affording care for them, finding new homes for unwanted equines, protecting equine welfare which includes during transit for commercial slaughter, controlling population growth, and addressing the potential environmental effects of free-roaming equines.
The federal practice of keeping wild horses in captivity is swallowing ever-larger chunks of the annual budget allocated to the Bureau of Land Management to manage the animals across the western rangelands. BLM spending on off-range corrals and pastures has grown from about $28 million in 2009 to almost $50 million in 2016 (not adjusted for inflation). On average, from 2009 to 2016, this spending accounted for more than 60 percent of BLM’s budget for managing wild horses.
The report found federal agencies and stakeholders had programs to control population growth, but these efforts are not currently affordable or practical to implement on a large scale. Wild horse advocates argue for more on-range management, with some believing there is more need of long-acting contraceptives.
Finding new homes through rescue organizations and adoption is uncertain. Domesticated and feral horses may be exported to Mexico and Canada for commercial slaughter, but the BLM has placed conditions on sales and adoptions of wild horses to prevent their slaughter.
Stakeholders identified various types of impacts that free-roaming horse populations have on the environment, particularly in western states. These impacts may include harming native vegetation, altering the landscape, and dispersing seeds. Federal agencies support research to better understand these impacts.
The report found federal agencies and stakeholders had programs to control population growth, but these efforts are not currently affordable or practical to implement on a large scale.