Bureau of Land Management:

Effective Long-Term Options Needed to Manage Unadoptable Wild Horses

GAO-09-77: Published: Oct 9, 2008. Publicly Released: Nov 10, 2008.

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The Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages about 33,100 wild horses and burros on 199 Herd Management Areas (HMA) in 10 western states. Under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, as amended, BLM is to protect wild horses and burros, set appropriate management levels (AML), maintain current inventory counts, and remove excess animals to prevent overpopulation and rangeland damage. Over the years, various stakeholders have raised issues about BLM's management of the animals on and off the range. GAO examined (1) BLM's progress in setting and meeting AML; (2) BLM's management of animals off the range through adoptions, sales, and holding facilities; (3) BLM's controls to help ensure the humane treatment of animals; and (4) what challenges, if any, BLM faces in managing for the long-term sustainability of the program. GAO surveyed and analyzed documents from 26 of the 44 BLM offices that manage wild horses and burros.

BLM has made significant progress toward setting and meeting AML (the optimum number of animals which results in a thriving natural ecological balance and avoids range deterioration). BLM has set AML for 197 out of 199 HMAs. Most of the field offices GAO surveyed considered similar factors in determining AML, such as rangeland conditions; however, BLM has not provided specific formal guidance to the field offices on how to set AML. Without clear guidance, BLM cannot ensure that the factors considered in future AML revisions will be consistent across HMAs. At a national level, in 2007, BLM was closer to meeting AML (about 27,200 animals) than in any other year since AMLs were first reported in 1984. The extent to which BLM has actually met AML depends on the accuracy of BLM's population counts. Nineteen of the 26 field officials GAO surveyed used a counting method which, researchers say, consistently undercounts animals and does not provide a statistical range of population estimates. Undercounting can put animals at risk and lead to increased program costs. The number of animals removed from the range is far greater than the number adopted or sold, which has resulted in the need for increased short-term and long-term holding. Since 2001, over 74,000 animals have been removed from the range, while only about 46,400 have been adopted or sold. Thirty-six percent fewer animals were adopted in 2007 than compared to the average adoption rates in the 1990s. As of June 2008, BLM was holding 30,088 animals in holding facilities, up from 9,807 in 2001. To accommodate the increased removals and declining adoptions and sales, BLM has increased the number of short-term and long-term holding facilities. BLM has implemented multiple controls to help ensure humane treatment, including random checks on adopted horses and agreements with adopters and buyers to prevent slaughter. Although BLM state offices collect data on the treatment of the animals, BLM does not always compile the information in its central database or report it to the public. Providing additional information to the public on the treatment of these animals could help inform the public about their treatment and improve transparency. The long-term sustainability of BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program depends on the resolution of two significant challenges: (1) If not controlled, off-the-range holding costs will continue to overwhelm the program. The percentage of the program's direct costs for holding animals off the range increased from $7 million in 2000 (46 percent) to $21 million in 2007 (67 percent). In 2008, these costs could account for 74 percent of the program's budget. (2) BLM has limited options for dealing with unadoptable animals. The act provides that unadopted excess animals shall be humanely destroyed or, under certain circumstances, sold without limitation. However, BLM only manages these animals through sales with limitations. BLM is concerned about the possible reaction to the destruction of healthy animals.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our October 2008 report on the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) Wild Horse and Burro Program, we found that the long-term sustainability of the program was threatened by the continued escalation of off-the-range holding costs. We reported that the Wild Horse and Burro Program's spending for off-the-range holding increased from $7 million in 2000--46 percent of the program's direct costs--to $21 million in 2007--67 percent of the program's direct costs. To improve the management of BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program, we recommended that the Secretary of the Interior direct BLM to develop cost-effective alternatives to the process of caring for wild horses removed from the range in long-term holding facilities and seek the legislative changes that may be necessary to implement those alternatives. The Department of the Interior concurred with the report's findings and recommendations. Based on our finding and recommendation, the Secretary of the Interior and BLM have taken action to implement our recommendation. Specifically, on October 7, 2009, the Secretary of the Interior proposed a new "cost-effective" and "sustainable" management approach for the program. The proposed initiative included (1) balancing herd growth rates with adoption demand, (2) establishing new wild horse preserves in the Midwest and East, and (3) showcasing treasured herds in the West with special designations. The new Wild Horse and Burro Initiative was central to BLM's fiscal year 2011 budget request for the program. Furthermore, BLM developed a Strategy Development Document in June 2010 that contained more specific draft goals, objectives, and possible management actions to implement the new initiative. The document stated that new legislative authority and appropriations from Congress would be needed to implement elements of the Secretary's initiative.

    Recommendation: To improve the management of BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program, the Secretary of the Interior should direct BLM to develop cost-effective alternatives to the process of caring for wild horses removed from the range in long-term holding facilities and seek the legislative changes that may be necessary to implement those alternatives.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our October 2008 report on the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) Wild Horse and Burro Program, we found that while BLM state offices sometimes collected data on animals that die during gathers, the information was not complied by BLM headquarters in its centralized database, nor was it reported to the public. We concluded that consistently tracking and reporting this information could help inform the public about the treatment of wild horses and burros and improve transparency. To improve the management of BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program, we recommended that the Secretary of the Interior direct BLM to track the number of animals harmed or killed during the gather process in a centralized database system and determine what information could easily be provided to the public to help inform them about the treatment of wild horses and burros. The Department of the Interior concurred with the report's findings and recommendations. Based on our finding and recommendation, BLM has taken action to implement our recommendation. Specifically, in July 2010, BLM issued Instruction Memorandum Number 2010-162 that established a centralized reporting requirement for animal deaths during the gather process. BLM is compiling this information and reporting it to the public on its website. For fiscal year 2010, through August 24, 2010, BLM has reported 19 gather related animal deaths.

    Recommendation: To improve the management of BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program, the Secretary of the Interior should direct BLM to continue to track the number of animals harmed or killed during the gather process in a centralized database system and determine what information on the treatment of gathered animals, short-term and long-term holding animals, and adopted animals could easily be provided to the public to help inform them about the treatment of wild horses and burros.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our October 2008 report on the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) Wild Horse and Burro Program, we found that 19 of the 26 field offices that we surveyed used a counting method which, researchers say, consistently undercounts animals and does not provide a statistical range of population estimates. Furthermore, we reported that undercounting can put animals at risk and lead to increased program costs. To improve the management of BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program, we recommended that the Secretary of the Interior direct BLM to continue to adopt and employ statistically based methods to estimate animal populations across herd management areas. The Department of the Interior concurred with the report's findings and recommendations. Based on our finding and recommendation, BLM has taken action to implement our recommendation. Specifically, in February 2010, BLM issued Instruction Memorandum Number 2010-057 on the deployment of statistically based population counting methods for wild horses and burros. According to the new policy, two population survey methods--simultaneous double-count with sightability bias correction and mark-resight using photographs--will progressively be implemented and utilized by field offices as training for field specialists, technical support, and funding are available to facilitate implementation.

    Recommendation: To improve the management of BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program, the Secretary of the Interior should direct BLM to continue to adopt and employ statistically based methods to estimate animal populations across HMAs, such as those being evaluated by animal population researchers, to improve the accuracy of population estimates integral to BLM's management of wild horses and burros on the range and in planning for capacity needed for excess animals once they are removed from the range.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our October 2008 report on the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) Wild Horse and Burro Program, we found that BLM had not provided specific formal guidance to its field offices on how to set appropriate management levels for wild horses and burros. Furthermore, we reported that since 2006 BLM had been working on revising the program's handbook that would provide such guidance. To improve the management of BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program, we recommended that the Secretary of the Interior direct BLM to finalize and issue the new Wild Horse and Burro Program Handbook that established a policy for setting appropriate management levels to ensure that they are determined based on consistent factors across herd management areas into the future. The Department of the Interior concurred with the report's findings and recommendations. Based on our finding and recommendation, BLM has taken action to implement our recommendation. Specifically, in June 2010, BLM issued the new Wild Horse and Burro Management Handbook which provides specific formal guidance on how to set appropriate management levels for wild horses and burros. The guidance is provided in section 4.2 and appendix 3 of the new handbook.

    Recommendation: To improve the management of BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program, the Secretary of the Interior should direct BLM to finalize and issue the new Wild Horse and Burro Program Handbook that establishes a policy for setting AML to ensure that AML is determined based on consistent factors across HMAs into the future.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our October 2008 report on the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) Wild Horse and Burro Program, we found that BLM was out of compliance with the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, as amended, by not destroying or selling without limitation excess wild horses and burros. Furthermore, we noted BLM's concerns about the possible public and congressional reaction to the large-scale slaughter of thousands of healthy horses. To address BLM's noncompliance with the act, as amended, we recommended that the Secretary of the Interior direct BLM to discuss with Congress and other stakeholders how best to comply with the act or amend it so that BLM would be able to comply. The Department of the Interior concurred with the report's findings and recommendations. Based on our finding and recommendation, BLM has taken action to implement our recommendation. BLM has had discussions with key members of Congress regarding changes to the Wild Horse and Burro Program, including needed amendments to the 1971 act, as demonstrated by (1) BLM's March 3, 2009 testimony at the House congressional hearing on the Restore our American Mustangs Act, H.R. 1018; (2) an October 7, 2009 letter to key members of Congress from the Secretary of the Interior on the department's new Wild Horse and Burro Initiative; and (3) BLM's fiscal year 2011 budget request that included a funding request to implement the new initiative. Discussions of the department's new Wild Horse and Burro Initiative have also been held with other stakeholders, such as the Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board at their board meetings in December 2009 and June 2010.

    Recommendation: To address BLM's noncompliance with the act, as amended, the Secretary of the Interior should direct BLM to discuss with Congress and other stakeholders how best to comply with the act or amend it so that BLM would be able to comply. As part of this discussion, BLM should inform Congress of its concerns with (1) the act's requirement for the humane destruction of excess animals and (2) the possible slaughter of healthy horses if excess animals are sold without limitation, under certain circumstances, as the act requires.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

 

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