It's a sad image: hundreds of horses that used to run free crowded into dusty corrals with little hope of ever again galloping the open range. The Bureau of Land Management practice of rounding up wild horses and burros on thousands of acres in Utah and other Western states is creating more problems for the animals and the environment than it solves.
That's the conclusion of a National Academy of Science's National Research Council report. Continuing the roundups and long-term storage of thousands of equines is a self-perpetuating policy that does nothing to shrink the herds and costs taxpayers tens of millions. The BLM is currently feeding and caring for about 50,000 horses and burros in cramped facilities, promoting largely unsuccessful adoption programs, while much more effective methods of limiting the ability of the horses to reproduce are not thoroughly explored.
The 451-page report explains that when equine herds increase to a point that the animals' nutritional needs are not being met, their fertility naturally declines. But as the BLM continues to cull the herds, the mares continue to produce offspring every year, making more roundups necessary.
The experts on the council say contraception would be a much more sensible approach, but the federal land-management agency has been slow to consider that option.
Animal-rights advocates also have rightly criticized the BLM policy and have reported poor conditions at some of the holding facilities. Horses likely will never be slaughtered for meat or other products such as dog food in this country, as they are elsewhere. The wild mustang is too much of an icon in the West.
The advocates make a sound argument that Americans owe much to the ancestors of these horses and their cousins that carried warriors into battle and provided the first "horsepower" needed to work our ranches and farms, and served as human transport many centuries before railroads and highways.
The BLM says its goal is to preserve the wild herds on federal lands. But at current fertility rates, the herds effectively double every four years. As the West becomes hotter and drier as predicted, the animals' habitat will diminish.
It's a complicated problem, with no quick or easy fixes, as the agency admits. But its professed dedication to "investments in science-based management approaches, exploring additional opportunities for population control, and increased transparency" should include admitting the present approach is untenable, and implementing the report's recommendations without delay.