Glaring Deficiencies in GAO Report on Wild Horse and Burro Program

With the fate of thousands of America’s wild horses and burros at risk, there was palpable optimism when the Government Accountability Office (GAO) announced that it would be issuing a report on the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Wild Horse and Burro Program to debut in October of last year. With the program’s ongoing managerial and budgetary problems, as well as recent announcements that the BLM might begin mass euthanasia of healthy wild horses, many hoped the investigation would be comprehensive, critical and catalyze a programmatic overhaul. 

The report, entitled “Bureau of Land Management: Effective Long-Term Options Needed to Manage Unadoptable Wild Horses,” was ostensibly issued in response to a request by Rep. Nick Rahall, Jr., (D-WV), Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, who has been critical of the program. Yet regardless of taking more than a year to prepare, the report utterly failed to deliver the sort of bold analysis that the GAO is known for as a federal watchdog agency. Instead, it offered a stunning lack of investigative research, despite comprehensive GAO interviews. 

Key issues to the wild horse and burro situation were left completely unaddressed, with the report instead focusing almost singly on what to do with the tens of thousands of “unadoptable” horses currently held in captivity at taxpayers’ expense. The report never so much as questioned the very policies that enabled the animals’ removal from the range in the first place, the reduction of their historic range by more than 19 million acres, or the “unadoptable” label arbitrarily applied by the BLM to tens of thousands of horses. The GAO failed to assess whether animals might be reintroduced onto the range, and instead deferred ultimate responsibility to the BLM’s alleged ongoing internal review of the issue. 

Even at the most fundamental level of analysis, the report is unquestioning of the BLM’s claim that wild horse and burro populations increase annually by 20 percent, though this contentious figure forms the backbone of many BLM round-up policies. In fact, the removal of wild horses and burros from significant portions of their rangeland, along with the BLM’s failure to conduct accurate population censuses, have contributed to the current “crisis” that has led some to call for the mass culling of wild horses as a means of population and budget management.

The one point in the report that AWI agrees with is the recommendation that the BLM should consult with stakeholders and Congress to discuss possible amendments to the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act to ensure it is in line with Congressional intent and public opinion. The legislation was fundamentally altered in 2004 by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) to allow the sale of wild horses to slaughter, a highly unpopular move. While AWI continues to work on Capitol Hill to affect this change, we have joined members of Congress in calling on the BLM to refrain from taking any lethal measures.