RENO, Nev. - The government spent less than 1 percent of its wild horse management budget on contraception programs and more than 60 percent on horse holding facilities last fiscal year despite a pledge to step up use of fertility control as an alternative to controversial roundups of overpopulated mustang herds on U.S. rangelands, agency records show.
Wild horse advocates say the fiscal year 2013 budget numbers show the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has reneged on a commitment to fertility control as the best way moving forward to keep herd numbers in check when necessary in Nevada and nine other Western states.
Instead, the leader of the largest national coalition says she fears the administration is moving to align itself with a growing number of ranching interests urging an end to the ban on slaughter of horses at overflowing holding pens where costs are skyrocketing.
"The only explanation at this point is that the BLM is creating a crisis where slaughter of America's wild horses is the only solution," said Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. She said the 509 mares that received fertility treatment last year were far short of the annual goal of 2,000 the agency set three years ago.
BLM spokesman Tom Gorey said Wednesday the critics' claims are baseless, "anti-BLM propaganda."
"It has been and remains the policy of the BLM not to sell or send wild horses or burros to slaughter," he said in an email to The Associated Press.
Until recently, mustang advocates felt comfortable the slaughter ban would remain intact given public opinion polls showing widespread support nationally for what they say is an icon of the American West. But that's no longer the case in places such as northern Nevada where ranchers and rural politicians are pushing for change, citing drought conditions and lack of holding space.
The Nevada Farm Bureau Federation and Nevada Association of Counties filed a federal lawsuit Dec. 30 seeking to force the BLM to use existing authority to sell older horses without the usual prohibition on resale for slaughter in cases where animals are deemed unadoptable. Earlier this month, a BLM resource advisory committee in Nevada also voiced support for some unconditional sales.
"It's time to think outside of the box," said Debbie Lassiter, chairwoman of the Sierra Front Great Basin Northeast RAC.
In 2012, the number of horses and burros at holding facilities (47,000) surpassed the estimated number on the range (40,000) for the first time since President Richard Nixon signed the Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.
In a 451-page report highly critical of the BLM last June, an independent panel of the National Academy of Sciences said the agency should invest in widespread fertility control of the mustangs instead of spending millions to house them. It concluded the BLM's removal of nearly 100,000 horses from the Western range over the past decade is probably having the opposite effect of its intention to ease ecological damage and reduce overpopulated herds.
The BLM treated about 1,000 mares in 2012 but only about half that last year, records show, far short of the annual goal of 2,000 then-BLM Director Bob Abbey announced in February 2011.
Gorey said Wednesday that the BLM asked for $2 million in new contraception research and development in fiscal 2013, but Congress rejected that. As a result, the $76.1 million the BLM spent on its wild horse and burro program for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 included $559,560 related to fertility control - about seven-tenths of 1 percent.
By far the biggest chunk went to holding facilities - $30.9 million short term and $15.3 million long term - for a total of 61 percent. The agency spent 18 percent on support and overhead, 10 percent on the adoption program and 6 percent - about $4.8 million - on roundups.