A federal program to round up excess wild horses and burros on public land and offer them for adoption is overwhelmed with too many animals and not enough people willing to take them home.
More than 6,000 unadopted animals have accumulated in government corrals and sanctuaries.This is the latest problem for a Bureau of Land Management program exposed a year ago for allowing people to sell adopted horses for slaughter.
The 26-year-old Wild Horse and Burro Program was intended by Con-gress to save the lives of wild horses that compete with ranchers' cattle grazing on public land in the West. The BLM has decided to limit the number of horses and burros on public lands to 26,000, but an estimated 44,000 are roaming free in 10 Western states.
The BLM has tried to get the situation under control by rounding up about 10,000 animals a year and offering them for adoption. However, the Associated Press reported last year that thousands of adopted animals had been sold for slaughter and that BLM employees were among those profiting.
The AP also found that the BLM lost track of about 32,000 adopted animals and that agency officials gave false information about the program to Congress.
Pat Shea, a Utah lawyer with a passion for the outdoors, took charge of the BLM in October and promised to overhaul the program. However, he said the reform is not coming easily. "When a mistake is made," he said, "there is a tendency to gather together and avoid recognition of the problem."
In the wake of disclosures, finding homes for the animals has been more difficult. For one thing, people who adopted large numbers of horses in the past and then sold them for slaughter are no longer allowed to participate. Jim Edwards of Columbus, Mont., was the first to be rejected.
Tim Murphy, manager of the BLM's district office in Miles City, Mont., rejected Edwards' application.
"This decision is based on the fact that you were involved in the sale of wild horses for slaughter in the mid-1980s," he wrote in October, "and that you were the caretaker of more than 20 horses that died from malnutrition during that period."
Edwards did not return calls. His wife, Sherry, said BLM agents encouraged the family to adopt the horses in the mid-80s and sell them for slaughter.
At that time, she said, it seemed the only way to get rid of excess horses. "There are good people in the BLM, there are lunatics in the BLM, and there are some people who have no clue about horses," she said.
Last year, BLM crews rounded up 10,443 horses and burros and were unable to find homes for 1,751 of them. The excess joined thousands more left unadopted from previous roundups. A January BLM survey counted 6,285 wild horses in BLM corrals and sanctuaries. This year the agency hopes to round up even more animals.
In the next three months, some of these animals will find homes during 31 adoption programs around the country. But other animals, some of them old, ugly or mean, are destined to live out their days as federal welfare cases.
Wild horses and burros are not cheap or easy to keep. Already, the BLM is spending $50,000 a week to maintain them, and their numbers are growing.
An internal audit of the program released in August blamed both the BLM and Congress for the program's problems. It said Congress hamstrings the BLM by prohibiting the agency from killing healthy animals. And it said the agency has not "aggressively pursued other options for controlling herd sizes, such as birthrate controls."
Shea said such options require a bigger budget. He said he needs $19.4 million to care for the animals and reorganize the adoption program, but Congress has appropriated only $15.8 million.