Reining in the Wild Horse Crisis

Market-based solutions can help alleviate the wild horse crisis on western public lands.

A romanticized vision of the West usually includes an unbridled mustang running wild and free across the range. In reality, many of the wild horses and burros that roam on western public lands are facing a bleak future. 

The problem is that there are simply too many horses and burros on too little range. The Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency charged with managing the animals, sets an appropriate population level for wild horses based on the amount of rangeland available, a figure that currently stands at 26,000 animals. Today, there are an estimated 95,000 wild horses and burros on public rangelands—more than three times the designated level. Even more challenging, due to the high fertility of the wild equines, the population is on pace to double every four years.

With federal protections and no natural predators, populations of the free-roaming animals have skyrocketed. In many areas, mustangs overgraze to the point that there is no forage left, meaning they literally face the prospect of starving to death on public rangelands. Wild horses have depleted vegetation and water sources from Oregon to Arizona, and native species such as elk and sage grouse are increasingly being displaced in many areas.

In an effort to lessen the toll of wild horses on the range, the Bureau of Land Management has resorted to gathering excess animals and moving them into corrals and pastures. The agency offers these horses and burros up for adoption to good homes through auctions, which has traditionally required a minimum bid of $125. But in a typical year only a few thousand horses are adopted. 

Roughly 50,000 horses and burros remain in off-range government facilities, costing taxpayers about $50 million a year—more than half of the program’s total budget. The agency has explored using permanent sterilization or even euthanasia as alternatives to wrangle the horse populations, but political divisions on the issue have prevented implementing these techniques.

WHAT PERC BELIEVES

PERC’s approach to conservation relies on voluntary exchange that results in positive environmental outcomes for both private and public resources.

 

PERC believes in the merits of market-based solutions to manage wild horses and burros. A simple way to ensure horses neither starve on the range nor cost taxpayers in off-range facilities is to get more of them adopted into private homes. In 2019, the Bureau of Land Management implemented a new incentive program to encourage adoptions. Rather than charging for horse adoptions, the agency now pays qualified adopters $1,000 to help cover the expenses associated with caring for horses and burros. PERC scholars have researched the idea of incentive payments for wild horse and burro adoptions over recent years, and we are excited about how this program’s implementation can benefit wild horses and burros, our rangelands, and taxpayers.

Adoption is clearly a better outcome for a wild horse than starving on the range or living out the rest of its days in an overcrowded corral. For taxpayers, the per-horse savings is undeniable. Spending $1,000 to find a mustang a good home is approximately 98 percent cheaper for the agency—and likely much more humane—than caring for it in a government holding facility for the rest of its life. Furthermore, taking horses and burros off public rangelands can alleviate major pressures on western ecosystems. Solving the wild horses crisis will allow vegetation to regrow and land to recover from overgrazing, reducing competition for forage and water among other wildlife.

PERC believes that another worthwhile strategy would be to harness markets to increase the space available to wild horses and burros on the range. Allowing wild horse advocates to acquire public-land grazing permits for the animals would help accomplish this end without upsetting revenue streams generated from such permits. A similar approach is used in Virginia with the Chincoteague ponies, a wild herd that is owned by a local volunteer fire company. Each year the fire company purchases a grazing permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to graze the horses on a public island. This is a unique scenario, however, and implementing the approach in the West would require changing certain rules governing grazing permits.

WHAT PERC IS DOING

PERC scholars published research in 2016 that proposed using incentive payments to achieve sustainable wild horse and burro populations. The scholars found that a $100 payment from the government to adopters would likely have been enough to ensure almost all of the animals in long-term holding facilities over the past several decades would have been adopted—and could have resulted in a savings to taxpayers of $450 million.

Since the $1,000-payment program was established in 2019, wild horse and burro adoptions have nearly doubled. The Bureau of Land Managements expects that this program of paying ranchers, families, and other willing parties to adopt wild horses and burros will continue to be a valuable tool for reining in the problem in the 21st century.

Public land managers need options to address wild horse overpopulation with tools and policies that meet the unique needs of our western lands and wildlife. PERC will continue our work on the issue and explore creative, market-based methods that can benefit the outlook of wild horses and burros, improve the health of western ecosystems, and reduce the taxpayer burden of this crisis.


Research on This Topic

You Can’t Drag Them Away: An Economic Analysis of the Wild Horse and Burro Program by Vanessa Elizondo, Timothy Fitzgerald, and Randal R. Rucker: An economic analysis in the Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics on the wild horse and burro crisis and how incentive payments will help promote adoption and reduce costs to the Bureau of Land Management.

Protecting Wild Horses Will Take a Wild Idea: A summary in the Deseret News of how adoption incentive payments will benefit wild horses and burros, our rangelands, and taxpayers.

A Wild Idea to Solve the Wild Horse Problem: An explanation in PERC Reports magazine of why establishing incentive payments for wild horse and burro adoptions is a positive step in addressing the environmental and financial problems caused by an overabundance of the animals.

Reining in the BLM’s Wild Horse Crisis: An op-ed in The Hill on the market-based approaches needed to rein in the excess wild horses and burros in the West.

You Can’t Drag Them Away: An overview in PERC Reports magazine on how to rein in the costs of the federal government’s wild horse and burro program.

Wrangling the Wild Horse Crisis: A summary of the challenges associated with wild horse and burro management and potential solutions.

Adoption is a Way Forward for Wild Horses: An op-ed in The Salt Lake Tribune on how continuing incentive payments will benefit wild horses, public rangelands, and taxpayers.