The Bureau of Land Management will pay up to $1,000 to people who picked up a wild burro or horse from its adoption program open house at Florence Prison earlier this month.
The latest round of the program was held Nov. 8 and 9 at the state prison, where participants got their very own wild horse or burro for as little as $25. Through the BLM’s new Adoption Incentive Program, qualified owners will earn $500 after 60 days of owning the animal. After six months, the land management agency gives them another $500.
Not just anyone can get a horse or burro, but the requirements are light. All you need is a BLM-approved keeping facility and a way to safely get your new equine friend home.
There’s also a reason this month’s horse and burro sale was held at Florence Prison. Some of the animals have been trained by Florence inmates as part of the BLM’s partnership program with the Arizona Department of Corrections. Inmate-trained burros started at $325, while trained horses cost at least $825. All trained animals were caught in the wild.
“Wild horses are known for their sure-footedness, strength, intelligence and endurance. With kindness and patience, these animals can be trained for many uses,” according to the event listing on the BLM’s website.
But that’s not how the BLM’s own leader describes them.
At an Oct. 11 conference hosted by the Society of Environmental Journalists, acting BLM head William Perry Pendley called the horses an “existential threat” and that the non-native equines are “causing havoc on the lands.”
“Some land in the West is so devastated and destroyed, it will never recover. Never recover. That’s a long darn time, and we’ve got to do something about it,” Pendley told journalists at the conference.
In 2016, Arizona created a law requiring the Arizona Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service to develop a plan on how to best manage the wild horses near the Salt River.
The Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting reported in 2018 that BLM is in an untenable situation with wild horses and burros:
Tom Taylor, a longtime volunteer with the Bureau of Land Management’s wild horse management program, said the agencies’ policies have led to a significant government expense to maintain rounded up horses kept in sanctuaries.
This method of housing unadopted horses for the remainder of their life is unsustainable according to the BLM.
In a report given to Congress on April 26, 2018, BLM reported that 60 percent of its $81 million yearly budget for the wild horse and burro management program is spent on housing the horses in sanctuaries.
BLM also said that its goal is to keep horse and burro populations at an appropriate management level (AML). The agency has determined that 26,715 is the AML for the horse and burro population; at the end of 2017, the population of the two animals was 83,000.
BLM estimates that the cost of sheltering 46,000 animals for the remainder of their lives would cost over one billion dollars.
The Adoption Incentive Program is actually one of several efforts aimed to deal with the very problem Pendley is referring to: the impact of wild horses on western landscapes. Studies have found that these horses and burros can cause damage to native ecosystems: overgrazing and hoof damage to the biotic crust of the soil and competition with native wildlife.
The Forest Service hasn’t performed a formal study on the environment impact the horses have, but anecdotal evidence has led some environmentalists to claim that the horses cause more damage than cattle. In the 1980s, the Forest Service stopped granting cattle grazing permits in Tonto National Forest, where the Salt River horses live, because they recognized the environmental damage.
The 2018 AZCIR report included observations from Mark Lawerson, president of the Maricopa Audubon Society, on the damage the horses cause to the Salt River habitat:
Horses and cattle did not evolve in the Sonoran Desert, and the effects that such large animals can have on the landscape goes beyond the overgrazing of plants.
“They are heavy, so their hooves damage a lot,” Lawerson said. “The natural world out there is not built to accommodate big herbivores like that.”
For instance, the combination of a horse’s weight and its hooves ruins the biotic crust of the soil, leading to poor absorption of water, Lawerson said. The horses also loosen the dirt, which can then be kicked up by wind and carried into the river.
The constant weight of horse hooves has turned areas that were once lush with cottonwoods and grass into brown, vacant expanses of loose dirt, Lawerson said. Entire bosques of mesquite trees look completely different than they did five years ago.
Horses also roam for longer and further than cattle, so they damage a larger area.
Lawerson said he’s seen the area change first-hand, and for the worse.
“Just two or three years ago, I was in this exact spot,” Lawerson said, standing in the Butcher Jones recreation area, describing the grass, herbs, annual plants and weeds that naturally grew below the canopy of desert trees in the riparian areas surrounding the Salt River.
Now, the area is barren and dusty. Horse hoof prints are visible in the loosened and trampled dirt. Lawerson pointed out the few scattered plants, some with signs of horse grazing. Those conditions, he explained, leave the area more prone to erosion, as the soil is easily kicked up by wind, people or animals.
That topsoil also ends up in the river, creating excess sediment, where it damages fish habitats and clouds the water. That, in turn, obscures the fish for birds – including the golden eagles native to the region – that prey on them.
The BLM takes a variety of approaches to managing the wild horse population. Other than the adoption and prison training partnership programs, the BLM also periodically rounds up horses in the wild and keeps them in captivity.
Some research has shown this method may be ineffective at controlling population sizes, while there is also an animal welfare risk, as demonstrated by the infectious outbreak among a captive wild horse population in Utah. The outbreak thwarted a planned adoption event after mustangs at the BLM’s Delta corral tested positive for a highly contagious strain of strangles, a type of equine Strep infection.
The next adoption event has not yet been announced, but Pendley has stated the program is ramping up under his leadership.
For more information, interested persons can reach the Adoption Incentive Program directly by calling 1-866-4MUSTANGS (1-866-468-7826).