RENO, Nev. — The head of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management says it's time to admit his agency has a $1 billion problem.
BLM Director Neil Kornze says the administration can't afford to wage an increasingly uphill battle to protect the ecological health of federal rangeland across the West while at the same time properly managing tens of thousands of wild horses and caring for tens of thousands more rounded up in government corals.
Kornze told The Associated Press the agency may not have done as good of a job as it could have in recent years to underscore the environmental and budgetary crisis looming in its wild horse and burro program.
His experts estimate $1 billion will be needed to care for the 46,000 wild horses and burros currently in U.S. holding facilities over their lifetime. That doesn't include the cost of future efforts to shrink the population of the record-67,000 now roaming public lands in 10 western states.
"We're trying to make an effort to be real clear about the challenges because they are significant," Korzne said late Tuesday. "Part of it is a recognition on our part that we can't solve this alone. We need partners coming to the table, whether it's states or counties or others," he said.
The 67,000 horses and burros on the range is a 15 percent increase from last year, and more than double the population that was estimated when President Nixon signed the Wild and Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act into law in 1971. The landmark legislation allows for removals but also grants the animals unique federal protection and requires they be treated humanely during and after their capture.
Korzne said his agency's horse budget has doubled since 2009 — from $40 million to more than $80 million currently — but "the trajectory of the population has just gone up and up." Left unchecked, the population naturally doubles every four years.
"It's a double bind," Korzne said. "There's a very real impact on the range when the herds are overpopulated, but it costs us $50,000 per horse if the horse lives out its whole life in holding. Every time BLM goes out and gathers 1,000 horses, we are talking about potentially a $50 million commitment on behalf of American taxpayers."
Kornze said one of the growing problems is a dramatic drop in the private adoptions of gathered mustangs over the past decade from about 8,000 a year to 2,500 or fewer.
Critics fear BLM is exaggerating the numbers to build support for past proposals by livestock interests to slaughter the oldest mustangs that have been placed in long-term holding with little chance of being adopted.
"The BLM's numbers are inflated estimates to fear-monger elected officials into supporting a breakdown of the 1971 law," said Anne Novak, executive director of the California-based Protect Mustangs.
Korzne insisted the agency has no intention of allowing the slaughter of federal horses. But he said it's considering spaying, neutering or otherwise sterilizing some animals that are on the range — something just as distasteful to most horse protection groups who argue the real answer lies in dramatic cutbacks in government-subsidized livestock grazing.
"Wild horses are present on just 12 percent of federal rangelands, which they share with livestock, and their habitat has shrunk by over 40 percent the last four decades," said Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. "The feds consider 67,000 wild horses and burros to be overpopulated, yet there are only 70,000 big horn sheep remaining in the West and they are highly endangered."