Although the idea is romantic — wild horses grazing the wide, open plain — government officials say the reality is far from ideal. The number of wild horses continues to grow each year as fewer people take advantage of adoption programs and the animals suffer even as they take a toll on the environment.
In hopes of dealing with record-breaking horse populations, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is offering would-be horse owners a financial incentive. The BLM is offering up to $1,000 to people adopting an untrained wild horse or burro in hopes that the money will "encourage more adopters to give a wild horse or burro a good home."
Under the Adoption Incentive Program, adopters will receive $500 within 60 days of adoption and another $500 once they've received the ownership title to the animal. In order to qualify to adopt, people must be 18 years old, have no history of animal abuse, and meet certain conditions for facilities and care.
The BLM cares for about 50,000 unadopted horses and burros each year. Taking care of the horses is expensive for taxpayers. Letting them roam, however, can lead to overgrazed lands and starvation for the animals.
Groups such as the American Wild Horse Campaign, however, argue that public lands are being overgrazed instead by privately owned livestock. Ranchers, they say, pay a nominal amount for grazing privileges on the land for cattle and sheep and that's where most of the damage is coming from.
The wild horse advocates often go head-to-head with the ranchers and BLM about which groups should be protected.
"We're estimating there's 88,000 wild horses in America right now," Gus Warr of the Utah BLM told CBS News. Warr said the land can only support about 27,000.
Because it costs about $2,000 a year to care for a wild horse, this $1,000 trade-off makes mathematical sense from the government's perspective.
But as with the traditional adoption program, there are those concerned that people might not be interested in the animals for completely altruistic reasons. The BLM says it will report adopters to local humane organizations if there are any signs of abuse.
Finding the best answer
There are various ways the government has been tackling the wild horse population issue, especially roundups for adoption. Many animal rights advocates say the roundups themselves are frightening and dangerous for the animals. Horses often are injured or even die during the traumatic experience.
The government has culled healthy animals — a solution that is typically unpopular with most citizens. Fertility control is sometimes used via remote vaccination of mares with a contraceptive vaccine.
Adoption, however, continues to be the most popular method of cutting herd numbers. Since the program was started in March, adoptions are up nearly 40%. However, the Humane Society and American Wild Horse Campaign say the BLM should focus its budget on fertility control instead.
BLM Deputy Director of Programs and Policy Brian Steed said in a news release, "Finding good homes for excess animals and reducing overpopulation on the range are top priorities for the BLM as we strive to protect the health of these animals while balancing other legal uses of our public rangelands, including allowing for other traditional land uses such as wildlife conservation and grazing."
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