$78 million in taxes spent caring for feral horses in captivity; Out-of-reach pasture owner says his ranch is an ‘all-inclusive resort’ for horses
MAXWELL, Neb. (CBS4) – In 2021, it cost federal taxpayers $78 million to care for nearly 60,000 wild horses and burros that were herded from the wild and moved to detention facilities operated by the Bureau of Land Management. Some horse advocates say it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money, but the BLM says it’s a necessary expense.
So CBS4 requested a tour of one of dozens of private facilities across the United States that have federal contracts to hold feral horses long-term, to better understand how taxpayer dollars are spent on the program.
Since many out-of-reach pastures are privately owned, it’s unusual for the public to peek inside, making some horse advocates skeptical of the treatment.
But when CBS4 news cameras made a rare tour of a facility in Maxwell, Neb., in late April, the more than 900 horses moved there appeared healthy with plenty of room to roam. .
Harry Haythorn runs Maxwell’s Out of Reach Pasture, located about a four-hour drive northeast of Denver, just across the border between the Mountain and Central time zones. He says he is very proud and happy to take care of the horses.
“I like to call it an all-inclusive resort when they come here,” Haythorn said.
When the BLM rounds up horses from the wild, they are sent to short-term holding facilities, such as Cañon City in southern Colorado.
From there, many horses are adopted, but those that are not are sent to long-term holdings, such as Haythorn Ranch.
His ranch holds horses that have been rounded up from Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, California and Wyoming.
Haythorn’s family has operated a ranch in Nebraska since the 1800s. He used to raise cattle, but applied for a feral horse contract a few years ago because it was getting harder to make ends meet .
Now he’s been under contract for nearly two years, receiving $1 million a year from the federal government, and says it’s a “windfall.”
“It gives us a stable and regular income; this is by no means a get-rich-quick scheme,” Haythorn said. “It costs about $650-750,000 a year just to keep the lights on. I have a little debt that I have to pay, because I was trying to make this ranch work…so now you’re really getting closer to that million dollars. So, are we going to make money? Yes, we’re going to make money, but we’re not going to make a lot of money.
In total, the BLM spent $112.273 million on its Wild Horse and Burro program in 2021.
Wild horse advocates say it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money to remove horses from the wild and place them in out-of-reach holding facilities, arguing that it costs nothing to feed the horses that remain wild and free on public lands.
“The overuse of taxpayer dollars here is deeply concerning, there is clearly a much more cost-effective way to manage these horses,” said Scott Wilson, wildlife photographer and American Wild Horse board member. Campaign.
Wilson says removing wild horses from the wild is an unnecessary and cruel practice. He believes that more aggressive birth control methods should be used for population control.
“Wild horses don’t have a voice, that’s why we need to speak up and defend their right to live and eat free on these lands,” Wilson said.
But John Neill, representative of the Office of Land Management’s off-range grazing contractor, says the levies are key to controlling the horse population, saying there aren’t enough resources on public lands to support the horses.
“Rangelands in the west are very sensitive, there’s a lack of moisture there, there’s severe drought all the time, and in drought conditions when there’s an overpopulation of animals, the animals lack food and water,” Neill said. “It’s a horrible way for these horses to have to live, having to walk miles and miles between their water source and then walk the same distance to get fodder again.”
But Wilson points out that the BLM allows ranchers to graze thousands of cattle and sheep on that same land.
“There are 30 times more cattle and sheep on this land set aside for the protection of our horses than there are horses,” Wilson said. “The cattle population must be reduced on these public lands in order to sustain and conserve horse populations for the future.”
Other feral horse advocates agree.
“The Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro program is a financial waste,” said Scott Beckstead of the Center for a Humane Economy. “The American taxpayer is cheated; this agency will spend tens of millions of dollars to remove wild horses and burros from our public lands to make way for cattle and sheep.
CBS4 asked Neill about these concerns.
“BLM is a multi-purpose agency, we don’t just manage one resource like wild horses and donkeys, we are mandated to manage multiple resources; cattle grazing is one of those things,” Neill said. “The livestock is much easier to manage because these animals are domesticated, they are not there all year round. They’re only there during their grazing season, and they’re withdrawn. So they don’t impact the landscape all year round. These wild horses are just the opposite. They are not domesticated. We don’t have the ability to just go and move them from place to place. Thus, impacts with wild horses can be much more extreme.
The BLM is currently seeking more long-term pasture contracts and plans to remove an additional 20,000 feral horses and burros from wild public lands across the country this year.
This worries horse advocates, not only for the use of taxpayers’ money, but also for the welfare of the horses, saying that helicopter roundups that remove horses from the wild cause broken legs and fatal injuries.
And once horses are moved to holding facilities, they are at risk of contracting diseases that they would not otherwise face in the wild.
Just in the past two weeks at the Cañon City facility, 129 once feral horses have died from an outbreak of the equine influenza virus. At another short-term holding facility in Wheatland, Wyo., 11 horses died in two months from an equine disease commonly known as strangles.
Supporters say the outbreaks are emblematic of how the BLM fails federally protected wild horses.
Neill says the BLM is working hard to prevent outbreaks and deaths. To learn more about BLM’s comprehensive animal welfare program, click here.
“Our protocol is to make sure all of these animals are properly vaccinated with all major equine disease vaccines and dewormed,” Neill said. “We have contract veterinarians on staff at all of our facilities who are there, sometimes, daily or as needed, to examine the health of the herd and treat animals that may require any type of treatment needed. So, it is very well followed throughout our program.
At Haythorn Ranch, he says no outbreaks have yet occurred, but says a few horses have died since the start of his contract, with a fatality rate of less than 1%.
“I’ve had a few horses that died of wounds, and I’ve had a few that died of natural causes, one was old,” Haythorn said.
Haythorn says the BLM inspects his ranch once a month and his horses receive regular veterinary checkups. He also sends the horses’ excrement to the laboratories to ensure that the horses receive adequate nutrition.
“I just want to do my best for this ranch, for this line and for these horses,” Haythorn said.
Haythorn, his wife, children and grandchildren all work at the ranch tending to the horses. He says they love them like family.
“We’re wired to take care of these animals, and I mean, it’s just in our DNA,” Haythorn said. “Does the man like to take care of these horses; They just give you a good feeling, and then I won’t need to hire a psychiatrist. It’s really cheap psychiatric care for me and my family, I know that.
CBS4 investigator Kati Weis digs deeper into the debate over cattle grazing on Colorado public land where wild horses roam. Look for his in-depth reporting on this aspect of the issue next week on CBS4 News.