By Amy Hadden Marsh
Cash incentive program in need of reform
Advocates from the Sand Wash Basin Wild Horse Advocate Team (SWAT) have identified the horses up for bid, providing photos for use on the BLM’s online adoption web page and a corresponding list of their tag numbers on the SWAT Facebook page. All of the Sand Wash horses are at the BLM’s Cañon City holding facility, which was under quarantine beginning in April 2022 due to a disease outbreak that killed 146 wild horses. This is the first adoption event for the Sand Wash horses since March 2022, 252 of whom are up for auction with the others from California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Wyoming.
Adoption Incentive Program needs reform
There are thousands of individual adoption and sale success stories, plus popular events such as the Meeker Mustang Makeover in Colorado and the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s national Extreme Mustang Makeover. Close to 80% of the U.S. Border Patrol’s herd are wild horses trained at one of six Wild Horse Inmate Programs. Data from BLM records show that, over the past two decades, 53% of wild horses and burros removed from the range were adopted.
Despite this, the BLM continues to round up and remove wild horses and burros at an accelerated pace, funneling thousands of equines into crowded holding pens with a less than viable adoption market. To breathe life back into wild horse adoptions, the BLM implemented the Adoption Incentive Program (AIP) in 2019. The AIP pays individuals $1,000 in taxpayer funds to adopt a wild, untamed horse or burro, allowing up to four animals per adopter at a time. But, abuse and controversy associated with the cash incentives have given the program a black eye. An investigation by the American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC) found that individuals or groups of related individuals are often adopting the maximum number of animals per person, holding them for one year (the point at which title passes and the full cash incentive is paid), and then sending them into the slaughter pipeline — earning as much as $82,000 in incentives and auction fees.
Since the start of the AIP, over 1,000 wild horses and burros have been funneled to kill pens and slaughter auctions. Eyewitnesses have reported hearing adopters declare that they only adopted animals for the $1,000 incentive. In a May 2021 exposé, the New York Times reported that an AIP adopter stated, “It’s economics . . . . I can make about $800 putting a calf on my land for a year. With horses, I made $1,000, then turned around and sold them for $500.”
The burden on wild horse rescues
Mustang sanctuaries are prime examples of successful adoptions. With a heavy emphasis on reuniting family bands and saving wild horses or burros from slaughter, rescue facilities, such as Windwalker Ridge Mustang Sanctuary, Freedom Reigns, Montgomery Creek Ranch, Skydog Sanctuary, For the Love of Aria, and RJF Equine, offer the animals safe haven. Windwalker Ridge, for example, is already home to two Sand Wash Basin horses and hopes to reunite them with others from their family during the upcoming Sand Wash Basin adoption event.
But, many wild horse and burro rescue operations are bearing the brunt of the BLM’s irresponsible cash incentive policy by paying extraordinarily inflated prices (or bail) to save these American icons from slaughter in foreign abattoirs. Kill buyers know that the public does not want wild horses and burros sold for commercial processing. They increase the bail to unattainable amounts, leaving privately-funded rescues scrambling to raise funds before the animals are shipped to slaughter.
There is a better way: Veterinary vouchers
The BLM’s AIP must be reformed by eliminating cash incentives and instead offering veterinary vouchers—a solution that has gained broad support from stakeholders—to offset the initial care of a wild horse or burro.
These vouchers are a win-win solution that will (1) help the BLM achieve its adoption program goals, (2) provide adopters with financial support, since all adopted animals will require veterinary care as part of responsible equine ownership, and (3) help ensure that horses and burros don't end up in the slaughter pipeline, ultimately restoring the public’s faith in the adoption program.
The BLM has significantly increased its removal operations—in Fiscal Year 2022 alone, the agency captured and confined over 19,000 wild horses and burros in already crowded holding facilities, spending over $93 million in roundup and holding costs. The AIP was intended to increase adoption rates in the face of a growing off-range population, yet it has created more problems than it solved.
Fertility control is a proven method to decrease population growth of wild horses and burros in the wild, which, over time, would reduce the need for expensive and often inhumane helicopter roundups. We can better protect equine families and reduce the need for costly, cruel roundups and a flawed federal adoption program by investing in proven fertility management solutions.
Americans are becoming aware of the problems with the AIP and the unscrupulous adopters and auction operators that profit from sending wild horses and burros into the slaughter pipeline after title passes. The irresponsible behavior of these bad actors tarnishes a program that could help the majority of captured wild horses and burros go to good homes.
Prospective adopters also need to understand what it means to take on an untamed wild horse or burro. Adoption requires serious financial resources, proper training, and equine infrastructure, such as fencing, corrals, shelter, food and water, to ensure the animal is properly cared for on its journey from a wild to a domesticated animal.
AWHC urges the BLM and Congress to—
- replace the AIP’s $1,000 cash incentive with a veterinary voucher that would benefit both animal and adopter;
- dedicate more of the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program budget to proven fertility solutions; and
- create a more rigorous adoption process, including screening of potential adopters.
AWHC supports and encourages the responsible adoption of wild horses and burros by responsible owners, and continues to advocate for improvements in the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program.