Adoption rates for wild horses culled from oversized herds have tumbled nationwide in the past decade. The number of horses held at federal corrals, feed lots and pastures has simultaneously skyrocketed—from roughly 10,000 in 2001 to more than 49,000 in 2012. As a result, the annual cost to taxpayers for federal management of wild horses has more than tripled since 2000 to an estimated $76 million.
"We're up between a rock and a hard place right now," says Bureau of Land Management spokesman Tom Gorey.
BLM was handed a controversial solution in 2004 when then-Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana sponsored legislation allowing the agency to sell eligible wild horses at numbers above the adoption limit of four per buyer every six months. BLM has since sold 5,400 wild horses and burros under the sale program, but the purchase of 1,777 of those animals by Colorado livestock hauler Tom Davis between 2009 and 2012 raised concerns among wild horse advocates. The nonprofit news organization ProPublica launched an investigation this fall into suspicions that Davis sold many of the animals he purchased to slaughterhouses in Mexico.
Montana currently has no wild horses in federal holding, but several facilities in Wyoming and Idaho were well over capacity as of November 2012.
The Department of the Interior is now revising its sale policy to limit the number of wild horses available to individual buyers each year. Even officials managing smaller herds in states like Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are searching for answers regarding what to do with unadopted animals.
BLM spokeswoman Jessica Gardetto, in Boise, points to partnerships with private eco-sanctuaries as one small fix. The first such sanctuary—Deerwood Ranch—went up in Wyoming this year and is now home to 250 wild horses. The Greenfire Preserve in Idaho, located near the Challis wild horse herd, is working toward a similar partnership with BLM, Gardetto says.
"We have so many horses, and the range can't support all of them," Gardetto says. "That's why a lot of horses go to long-term pastures."
Gorey believes these eco-sanctuaries won't solve the agency's capacity problems entirely. But he and Gardetto agree they'll help promote education and tourism around the animals, and offer an alternative for older horses that are less prone to adoption.