Wild Horses

The Bureau of Land Management wants to pay you $1,000 to adopt a wild horse. But the program has been criticized by animal rights advocates and subject to scrutiny by Congress.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wants you to adopt a wild horse and it will pay you $1,000 to do so. 

The BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program helps protect and manage America’s wild horses and burros who roam 26.9 million acres of public lands. As far as the BLM is concerned, there are simply too many wild horses and burros. A March 2023 herd management area report estimated the wild horse population to be 68,928 and the wild burro population to 13,955. The BLM has a goal of 27,000 wild horses and burros, so it is currently trying to manage an overpopulation of the animals that is more than three times their ideal “appropriate management level”, a figure which has been questioned by critics.

So what do you do with all those extra wild horses and burros? The BLM puts them up for adoption. You can browse through an online database of the current selection of wild horses and burros that are available. To encourage a successful placement with a responsible owner, there’s a $1,000 payment available through the Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Incentive Program.

Wild Horse Data

The horses are featured with a series of photos from the front, side and a three-quarter view as well as a video of the horse galloping around a holding pen. This isn’t Petfinder however, as the horses don’t have names but numbers with descriptions such as “4 YEAR OLD BAY FEMALE HORSE (2371)”, which doesn’t really tug at your heart strings. 

A variety of important data is offered for each prospective adoptee: the date and the location of each animal’s capture, disposition, training status, height (measured in “hands”, where 1 hand = 4 inches) and its current location. For instance, this data shows that Horse 2371 is currently living at the Carson City Correctional Facility in Nevada.

The data also includes the animal’s “freezemark”, which is a permanent, unalterable identification pattern that is applied to the animal’s neck with an iron that has been supercooled in liquid nitrogen. These marks look like glyphs from a forgotten language, but they are actually characters from the International Alpha Angle System. The symbols encode the animal’s year of birth, state of capture, registration number and a mark indicating it was registered by the U.S. government. 

Since the program was started after the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971, the BLM has placed over 270,000 animals in new homes. According to the BLM, the agency conducts inspections to make sure the animals are being properly cared for, and places limits on the number of adoptions per owner.

Some animals are cared for in corrals within federal corrections facilities such as the Hutchinson Correctional Center in Kansas, where prisoners help tame and train the wild animals to help facilitate their adoption. The BLM says that animals that are not adopted are cared for by the BLM for the rest of their lives. 

“Cruel” Helicopter Roundups

While this program sounds like a good solution to a difficult problem, it has been criticized by animal rights advocates and subject to scrutiny by Congress. The practice of rounding up the wild horses and burros by low flying helicopters has been called “cruel” by the American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC), a non-profit organization that advocates for American wild horses and burros. These roundups often result in dozens of animal injuries and deaths

The AWHC says the BLM’s real motivation behind reducing the wild horse and burro population is to allow for more grazing on public land for the livestock of private ranchers. 

In 2021, an investigation by The New York Times called attention to another problem with the adoption program – people who would simply adopt an animal, collect their money from the BLM then sell the animal off to be slaughtered. A recent NBC investigation found evidence that some of these adopted animals are ending up in kill lots. A “common questions” page on the BLM website says “BLM does not have the means or legal authority to track or direct the disposition of wild horses or burros once they pass into private ownership (i.e. once an animal is sold by BLM or an adopter receives title).” The BLM did not respond to a request for comment.

The AWHC says there is a more humane and affordable way to reduce the population of wild horses and burros on public land, which is to greatly expand the use of contraceptive vaccines. 

Representative Dina Titus of Nevada, an advocate for reforming the program, said in a recent letter to the Director of the BLM, “Scientific research shows that more humane and cost-effective alternatives exist to control equine populations, including fertility controls like the Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP) vaccine. The BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program, however, currently spends less than one percent of its budget on fertility controls. ”

Special thanks to reader (and talented visual journalist) Ash Ngu for suggesting this fascinating dataset! 🐴

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