Wild Horses BLM

Two young wild horses play while grazing in Reno, Nev., January 2011. Federal land managers say it will take 20 years and cost more than $1 billion over the first six years alone to slash wild horse populations to sustainable levels necessary to protect U.S. range land.

RENO, Nev. — Federal land managers say it will take two decades and cost more than $1 billion over the first six years alone to slash wild horse populations to sustainable levels necessary to protect U.S. rangeland.

The Bureau of Land Management’s latest plans envision capturing 200,000 mustangs over the next two decades. It also wants to build corrals to hold thousands more than current capacity and adopt regulations allowing the permanent sterilization of horses roaming federal lands for the first time.

“The overall funding requirements could be staggering,” the bureau acknowledged in a report to Congress this week.

The strategy underscores the volatility of the decades-long controversy pitting horse advocates against ranchers whose livestock compete for federally subsidized forage across 10 western states.

“The estimates in this analysis are intended to identify to committees the severity of program challenges,” the agency said.

The 25-page report repeats 10 separate times that the estimates “should not be construed to imply Administration support for particular levels of appropriations for this program beyond FY 2021.”

However, it also suggests Congress should put its money where its mouth is when it comes to managing mustangs, noting that language congressional conferees included in the Interior Department’s last appropriation bill states it is “incumbent upon the bureau to request the funding necessary to address this growing problem.”

The bureau says if nothing is done to curb annual growth rates of herds that naturally double every four or five years, the number of wild horses and burros on the range could exceed 2.8 million by 2040.

It stops short of repeating past requests to eliminate prohibitions on the resale of excess horses for slaughter.

But horse defenders said that’s clearly the intention of painting such a dire picture of the challenges. They argue horses grazing federal land are dramatically outnumbered by cattle that cause significantly more ecological damage.