The U.S. Bureau of Land Management will round up fewer wild horses and try to shuffle funds within the agency to hold off for now on killing large numbers of the animals in an effort to control herds and spiraling costs, an official said Monday.
Deputy Director Henri Bisson said maintaining the wild horse and burro program for another year will give horse advocates, the BLM, Congress, ranchers and wildlife advocates time to explore possible solutions and let "cooler heads prevail."
"Let's focus on doing something positive before we have to look at last resort tools," Bisson said. "We're not making any decisions today. We're not making any decisions next week."
About 33,000 wild horses roam the open range in 10 Western states, half of those in Nevada. The horses and burros are managed by the BLM and protected under a 1971 law enacted by Congress.
The agency, which set a target "appropriate management level" of 27,000 horses in the wild to protect the herd, the range and other foraging animals, rounds up excess horses and offers them for adoption. Those too old or considered unadoptable are sent to long-term holding facilities.
In all, the agency is caring for about the same number of horses in holding pens as there are on the range.
The National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board is considering ways to help spur adoptions that have slowed in recent years and to curb population growth as a way to reduce long-term holding costs.
Bisson told the same group in June that the agency faces a crisis because of the skyrocketing costs of caring for the horses in long-term facilities where the animals live out their days - some for as long as 20 years.
A report released last week by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said the BLM this year will spend about $27 million - about three-fourths of its budget - caring for the animals. Continuing current practices would require a budget of $58 million next year, escalating to $77 million in 2012, BLM estimated.
The report also noted that the BLM has authority to kill or sell excess horses without restriction from slaughter.
Some advocates who oppose euthanizing horses say herd sizes are a result of years of agency mismanagement. They also say horses are given short shrift on public lands because they compete with livestock for forage.
Bisson projected the agency needs to find $15 million to $20 million elsewhere in its budget to sustain the wild horse program through the year.
Government roundups will be limited to about 5,000 horses and mostly involve animals facing severe hardship because of conditions such as drought.