SALT LAKE CITY — Frustrated Utah ranchers and wildlife managers who say excess wild horses are running amok are optimistic over President Donald Trump's budget plan that would allow the animals' slaughter or euthanization, at the same time advocates say it would lead to the Western icon's near extinction.
Caught in the middle of the untenable situation is the Bureau of Land Management, which for years has been hamstrung by lack of financial resources and willing adopters to control the animals' burgeoning populations.
Trump wants to save $10 million in 2018 by erasing the budget language that prohibits the sale of wild horses for commercial slaughter in neighboring countries such as Canada or Mexico, with an eye toward markets where horse meat is a delicacy.
There are close to 73,000 wild horses and burros in 10 Western states, far surpassing targeted management levels of 27,000. Beyond that, 46,000 animals are in long-term holding pastures or on private ranches under contract with the federal government.
The BLM's budget for wild horse and burros has ballooned by $60 million in 17 years — to $80.4 million — with $50 million that spent on animals' long-term care in the holding pastures.
Federally protected since 1971 with the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming and Burros Act, wild horse populations are skyrocketing. Last year, their numbers grew by 8 percent.
"With few natural predators and limited tools for controlling herd growth, our nation's wild horse and burro herds are chronically overpopulated and increasing exponentially," the BLM said in a statement on the budget proposal.
"Given the extensive overpopulation, wild horses and burros routinely face starvation and death from lack of water," the statement continued. "The high number of excess wild horses and burros cause habitat damage that forces animals to leave public lands and travel onto private property or even highways in search of food and water. Simply put, the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro program — in its current form — is unsustainable."
While the agency gathers wild horses and treats mares with birth control, a 2013 report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded there were no highly effective, affordable or easily deliverable methods of birth control available, with more research that needs to be done.
A coalition of ranchers and rural counties in Utah sued the federal government over the wild horse problem, with many leaders pressing for a solution in multiple trips to Washington, D.C., to meet with BLM leaders under the Obama administration.
"You can't have any species out their proliferating at will," said Iron County Commissioner Alma Adams. "People who don't see the range, who don't see what is happening out there, don't care."
Adams said Trump's proposal that would allow the BLM to use more management tools — including slaughter and euthanasia — is long overdue.
"This is what I have been asking for all along since I have been a commissioner — to have some common-sense approach. It would be better for everybody, especially the horses, because they are destroying their range."
In Utah, the BLM has capped "appropriate management levels" for wild horses and burros at 1,956, but those ranges now hold 5,528 animals.
Over the past couple of years, the agency conducted some limited roundups, including one gather targeting horses that strayed onto a highway posing public safety concerns and other efforts aimed at collecting errant horses that had strayed to private property.
Wild horse advocates contend the problem of wild horse management is one invented by powerful ranching interests and an incompetent federal government.
"The agency also wants to drive wild horse and burro population levels down to near extinction levels, based on arbitrary population limits that the National Academy of Sciences has criticized as having 'no science-based rationale,'" said Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign.
Roy's organization is urging Congress to overturn the slaughter ban.
“We call on Congress and to stand firm against the mass killing of these American heritage animals, and we call on President Trump to force his Interior Department to change course,” she said. “America can’t be great again if our national symbols of freedom are destroyed.”
Roy added that the BLM "wants to turn the clock back 50 years" to a time she asserts ranchers rounded up wild horses by the thousands and sold them for slaughter.
The BLM's plan would cull herds by 63 percent of their existing population, she said.
Utah officials, however, counter that the wild horse problem has to be solved.
"Current wild horse and burro management strategies are not having the impact we would hope for," said Mike Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources. "Left unaddressed, wild horses are harming range lands and hurting watersheds. Our hope is that the BLM will use all the tools available to them under the law to reverse and change this trend."
Beyond impacts to rangeland for cattle and sheep, wild horse herds in Utah are ravaging forage that supports mule deer populations and other wildlife, prompting members of the State Wildlife Board to urge the BLM to reduce their numbers.
While the optics of wild horse slaughter may not sit well with the vast majority of the American public, that same public is only adopting 2,500 horses a year, Adams said, and the alternative to too many horses on the range is far more gruesome.
"If you've ever seen one starve to death," he said, and paused. "It's not something you want to see."