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COMMENTARY: Home on the range

America’s vast public lands support an astounding array of natural resources. Along with providing habitat for wildlife, public lands serve the American people as well by maximizing economic and recreational opportunities and fostering many other traditional uses.

To balance the use and protection of our shared resources, the Bureau of Land Management acts as a steward of nearly 245 million acres of public lands across the country.

Among the most challenging missions the BLM faces is preserving and protecting America’s wild horses and burros on these public lands. Federally protected since 1971, wild horse and burro herds have been rapidly outgrowing their habitats for years, often exceeding the water and forage that is available to them. Under these conditions, wild horses and burros (as well as other wildlife) are put at greater risk of starvation and thirst, often prompting emergency action by the BLM to save the animals and prevent irreparable damage to the land.

Today, wild horse and burro overpopulation has reached new heights and continues to grow. As of March 1, approximately 95,000 wild horses and burros were estimated to roam on BLM-managed public lands — more than three and a half times what the land can sustainably support and the most ever estimated by the BLM in a given year. In some places, herds have reached 10 or 15 times their appropriate size. Furthermore, the BLM currently cares for and feeds nearly 50,000 unadopted and unsold wild horses and burros in its off-range corrals and pastures.

Absent any change, wild horse and burro populations on public lands will continue to burgeon exponentially over the coming years — potentially reaching 2.8 million by 2040. The result of these expanding herds is unsustainable, catastrophic damage to wildlife and habitat health.

The BLM is already taking unprecedented action to combat overpopulation in some of the most at-risk places on public lands. Since 2018, the BLM has gathered more wild horses and burros from overpopulated herds than the previous five years combined. Simultaneously, the BLM continues to support research and development, harnessing the latest science and technology for wild horse and burro management. The BLM recently kicked off a new trial of an innovative fertility control vaccine that, if viable, could be a powerful new tool to lower herd growth rates and reduce the need for gathers and off-range holding.

Dozens of additional ongoing projects are focused on improving existing fertility control vaccines and other management tools. Last year, under President Donald Trump’s leadership, the BLM launched an innovative new incentive program that refocuses taxpayer money to put more animals into private care. Individuals are paid $1,000 for each untrained animal they adopt. The program has helped the BLM break a 15-year record on the number of animals placed into private homes in a given year, saving taxpayers an estimated $170 million that would have otherwise been spent on the lifetime care for those animals.

Now is the time to chart a bold new course for the management and protection of the horses and burros and prevent unnecessary degradation to their habitat.

The strategy calls for — among other priorities — gathering and removing more excess animals from overpopulated herds; placing removed animals into private homes through adoption or sale, or with private partners who can provide long-term care; and treating animals left on the range with fertility control to slow future herd growth. This is an ambitious plan that focuses on what we can realistically accomplish to achieve sustainable, healthy populations of wild horses and burros on public lands in the years ahead.

Make no mistake, the path to a sustainable, responsible and healthy management strategy for our nation’s wild horses and burros will not be an easy one, as years of neglect cannot be undone overnight. And yet by working together with Congress, private partners and state and local governments — and with the support of the American people — the Trump administration is finding innovative ways to solve this growing crisis.

We owe it the wildlife, to our public lands and to future generations of Americans to get this right.

— Casey Hammond is principal deputy assistant secretary of the interior for land and minerals management.

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