Some of the 82,000 wild horses that live on public lands in ten western states are trapped by the federal government. This year, the office, known as the BLM, is tasked with reducing herds of wild horses and burrows to 20,000. To help animals hear, the office uses special tools such as helicopters.
Jeff Fontana has been with the Federal Bureau of Land Management for more than 30 years – helping to care for American wild horses.
“Helicopters are a safe and efficient way to transport a large number of animals across the landscape,” Fontana told CBS News’ Joy Benedict on the Twin Peaks series in Lassen Couty, California.
It’s a chase that can go on for miles as the helicopter descends on a group of horses and traps them in one area.
According to Fontana, it is relatively safe for horses although injuries may occur.
“We have a really good record in this program, with infections from gathering activities being less than half of one percent,” Fontana said.
Fontana said that horses can die through the BLM’s helicopter collecting tactics, in the same way that they can die from a distance due to degraded resources due to overpopulation.
Jason Lutherman is working on the Wild Horse and Burro program who is running 46 Tours West this year. He said it was essential to keep the herds at an appropriate size to ensure there was adequate food and water for all.
“Wild horses are increasing 15-20% a year if we weren’t here to manage that growth, the herds would continue to grow and eventually degrade the land enough that they would run out of food and water,” Lotterman said.
“Our goal is to manage healthy herds on healthy public lands,” he said. “And so, the way we can do that is to make sure there are enough resources here for these animals to survive.”
BLM manages 26.9 million acres of land. It was established in the 1940s to oversee, preserve, and lease federal lands for profitable cattle grazing. But when the hunting of wild horses began, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971 to protect them and the land they live on.
But the use of helicopters as a means of capturing wild horses is controversial – some have called it inhumane.
Nevada Congresswoman Dina Titus has begun a formal review of what the BLM is doing after becoming concerned about whether horses are being humanely grouped.
“The job of the government, from the BLM, is to manage humanely and there’s nothing human about what’s going on,” she said.
Titus added, “It wasn’t until some activist groups started tracking those arrests, and I realized how awful they were. They use helicopters, they run horses.”
Titus also introduced a bill to decommission the helicopters – which last year alone were blamed for the deaths of 25 horses. Titus believed that using a cowboy would be a more humane method.
“Save a horse and hire a cowboy,” said Titus. “They know how to collect horses and I’m sure they are more humane than this.”
BLM stopped using cowboys to circle their mare in the 1970s. Transporting horses off horseback was a “really difficult situation,” Fontana said.
The Bureau of Land Management has spent more than $450 million in the past five years on the Peruvian Wild Horse Program. Of this total, $25 million is allocated to raising the animals, but most of the money goes to the care of horses in captivity for long periods.
“Animals that are not adopted are cared for in the long-term in far-reaching pastures and large open pastures for these animals to roam for the rest of their lives and yes it costs us about 60% of our budget to care for unsold and unsold animals,” Fontana said.
Although horses are offered for adoption, BLM only monitors first-year approved horses.
In the past, Fontana said, horses were adopted and put up for slaughter, although they try to keep an eye on them as best they can.
“It’s something we are always well aware of and always excel at,” Fontana said.
One morning the BLM collected 46 horses including 6 ponies – most of the animals were sent to temporary holding facilities, except for two who were euthanized due to poor health.
A handful of collected horses will receive contraceptives and be released. The rest will live a home life out of range and away from the land that once made them wild and free.