Officials struggle to find solution to large wild horse population

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PARK CITY, Utah -- On an 8-acre piece of land in Park City, Sonya Richins has built a new home for her growing family, a sanctuary, as she calls it, where she’s brought three horses, out of the wild, but free from captivity.

“I call it wild horse fever,” Richins said. “I just will do anything for these horses.”

She adopted her trio from wild horse herds in Utah and Nevada, where government roundups of the animals left their fate undetermined.

“In one moment, the horses are grazing, they’re wild and free,” Richins said. “All of a sudden, a helicopter comes in and their life changes as they know it.”

The scheduled gatherings of horses are just one of the tactics the Bureau of Land Management is using to try to keep up with their growing population. However, budget cuts have made even that effort more difficult.

“It’s even got to a situation where wild horses are getting on to private lands and state lands and causing issues for them,” explained Verlin Smith, branch chief for renewable resources at Utah’s BLM office.

According to the agency, there are almost 34,000 wild horses roaming public lands in Utah and nine other states, which is about 14,000 more than the BLM is prepared to handle.

The budget to manage the horses for 2012 was about $75 million, but according to a report by researchers Robert A. Garrott and Madan K. Oli, published in the magazine Science, if the estimated cost of caring for captive horses stays unchanged, the BLM would have to spend $1.1 billion by 2030, with an annual cost of $67 million thereafter.

“Just the percentage of BLM’s budget that continually is going to take care of horses, that are not on the range, is eating a larger and larger percentage of our budget,” Smith said.

In Utah, officials have even introduced birth control vaccines to some of the horses, but officials are hoping discussions currently ongoing in Washington D.C. can lead to a more permanent plan. Smith said the problem could even lead to new legislation.

“Right now, everything is on the board from using fertility control measures on the populations themselves, seeing if there is some way we can actually increase adoptions,” Smith said. “Are they willing to change the act to allow for disposal of horses, for example, that couldn’t be done before, or increase the budget?”

Whatever they decide, horse owners, like Richins, hope the measures don't come at a cost to the animals she believes should be protected.

“I just want them to be free and to be safe,” she said. “They’re so loving.”

Researchers behind the Science magazine article concluded that if the BLM and lawmakers could come up with a way to decrease the horse population by about 10,000, then birth control vaccinations, which can be costly, and adoption could keep numbers down for good.