The last roundup? Federal wildlife officials need to rely on contraceptive measure to manage wild horses instead of removal, which only spurs a mustang population boom, an expert panel says.

Federal managers are taking the wrong approach on wild horse populations and should focus more on contraception rather than rounding up and removing the herds from public lands. If the existing approach isn't changed, Western wild horses could triple their numbers in six years, an expert panel warns, and more than 100,000 horses could ravage public lands.
Under a 1971 law, the federal Bureau of Land Management must balance wild horse and burro population numbers against other uses of public lands, such as recreation and grazing. The agency estimates that means about 26,500 horses and burros should be on Western public lands, a number the agency has attempted to achieve through the roundup and removal of excess horses, about 8,000 a year, which are put up for rarely achieved adoption.
Roundups have spurred a costly mustang population boom, the National Research Council's report says. The removed horses leave plenty of rangeland vegetation for remaining horses to feed and breed. The experts instead suggest that wildlife officials shift to widespread herd-contraception programs to manage wild mustangs and burros.
"Scaling up use of these methods to the larger and more disseminated horse populations in the western U.S. will be challenging," Washington State University veterinarian Guy Palmer, chair of the study committee, said in a statement.
Each year, the BLM removes about 8,000 horses and burros, from an estimated 37,300 wild horses and donkeys roaming 31.5 million acres in 179 herd groups from Washington to Colorado. Roughly 60% of the federal agency's $75 million wild horse budget supports about 49,500 wild horses and burros rounded up over the past decade and maintained in agency corrals or farmed out in private pastures. Only about 2,800 horses were adopted from the agency by private owners last year.
The BLM has not responded to a USA TODAY request for comment. Bureau wildlife officials treated and released 1,051 wild mares with long-term contraceptive drugs last year along the lines recommended by the NRC report.
Federal officials also need to fix estimates of wild horse numbers, which probably undercount 10% to 50% of the wild mustangs and burros, the panel says, as well as undertake a meaningful survey of wild horse genetics and habitat conditions.
"Given the nature of the situation, a satisfactory resolution will take time, resources and dedication," the panel report concludes. "Addressing the problem immediately with a long-term view is probably a more affordable and satisfactory answer than continuing to remove animals to long-term holding facilities."