MARR PLAN for Wild Horses

How to TERMINATE ROUNDUP once and for all

A heart-felt and lasting THANKS to Elizabeth White for tirelessly bringing our alternative wild horse management concept (the “Marr-Downer Plan”) to public attention, and to Annie Mond for asking such a no-nonsense question.

Annie asks: ““HOW HOW HOW do you get the BLM to raise the AML to 180K when the BLM is very clearly in the pocket of the livestock industry and vice versa…..evil bedfellows….is this even realistically possible? That’s the ONLY thing about this plan that is very problematic on a very practical level. The entire plan is predicated on that happening. It’s a HUGE problem. The AML is largely set for the convenience of the livestock industry.”

Pessimists say “Possible but difficult”. Optimists say “Difficult but possible”. I’m an optimist.

So that the reader will even understand Annie’s question, let me first pin-point the origin of the current problem. First item to note: the AML (Appropriate Management Level), meaning maximum allowed population.

Before the Civil War (1861-1865), there were an estimated 2 million wild equids roaming the American West. Due in large part to the war’s demand, large numbers of wild horses were captured to serve as war mounts on both sides, thousands of which killed in action, which instigated even more capturing. After the war, the capturing of wild horses went basically ungoverned and continued in the form of “MUSTANGING” as perpetrated by anyone with a truck and a rope interested in providing fresh and cheap meat to the pet food industry, and making enough money to buy their next hamburgers. And so, the wild horse was decimated by government decree, or a lack thereof.

A century later, in 1965, as if to answer the call of the times, the Hollywood film The Misfits (starring Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift) came on the big screen, which brought mustanging to the forefront of the social consciousness. This did whip up a measure of social fervor, in response to which, in 1971, “Wild Horse Annie” forced out the “Free-Roaming Wild Horses and Burros Protection Act” which banned the capturing of wild horses by anyone except the designated government body empowered to manage the wild horse population – the US Grazing Service, which was then renamed the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

In the late 1960s a number of wild horse population-estimates surfaced, which ranged from about 15,000 to 25,000. So, as soon as the BLM took charge, by coincidence or intention, it set the wild horse AML at 26,600 (rounded off here at 27K). This was BLM’s first BIG MISTAKE.

Ecology 101 has it that a wild herbivore population, in the absence of its natural predators. will increase in population by 15%-25% per year, depending on food availability, until it exceeds the carrying capacity of the land and hits the wall, taking the wall with it. This would cause the population to blow the 27K AML in no time flat.
The initial idea of the BLM was to round up enough wild horses to leave 27K on the range, then have the captives adopted out. Horses in, horses out, problem solved. But it wasn’t.

The 60s “Mustang Fever” lasted into the 70s, but not for long. With the cooling of public passion came the decline in Mustang adoption. Captured but not adopted wild horses began to stack up. And the BLM resorted to building expensive holding facilities to incarcerate them for life. Not a cheap or even reasonable proposition, at all.

Fast forward to 2018. Suddenly, there was the media headline about a scheme of SLAUGHTERing 45,000 wild horses – the 45,000 captured wild horses then languishing in the by then much expanded and ever more expensive holding facilities costing Congress some $80M per year to build and run, on top of the helicopter expenses in the periodic and recurrent round-ups to keep the on-range horse population below 27K at all times. The public’s response to the slaughter announcement was a big, loud, hard and shocked NO! So, back to building more holding facilities, since BLM had indicated that extant holding facilities were reaching capacity.


And it was then that the BLM made its second MAJOR BLUNDER – to adopt a drastic brute-force-oriented decade-long program called “10 YEARS to AML”, which was hatched behind closed doors in mid-2018 by a conglomeration of groups comprising the HSUS, the ASPCA and a misnomer of a group called “Return to Freedom”, together with about 50 “stakeholders”, most of which being special interest groups centered upon or associated with the cattle, mining and hunting industries.
In brief, the “Path Forward”, as the 10-Years-to-AML doctrine was publicly called, dictated that the current on-range population, whatever it be, to be cut down to the AML (of 27K) within 10 years. And since the current population is, say, 80,000, then projecting 10 years into the future would require rounding up 15,000-20,000 wild horses per year for the first 5 years and about 15,000 for the next 5, to arrive at less than 27K ON-RANGE wild horses within 10 years, so it was declared.

What they seemed to have innocently ignored, or deliberately dismissed, was the number of OFF-RANGE wild horses in captivity during and after those 10 years, and the cost to keep them fed and healthy for life. A rough estimate would be the 60K or so in captivity around 2020 plus the 15,000-20,000 per year from round-ups, totaling around 250,000 wild horses in captivity after 10 years. Bear in mind that the annual increase of 15,000 will jack up the upkeep cost by $2K x 15,000 = $30 million per year. And this would jack up the annual holding cost from $100M to $130M for the next year. And so on from year to year.

In 2020, Congress raised BLM’s annual budget from $80 million to $90 million, spent mostly on the holding facilities and helicopters. And in 2019/2020, how much did the BLM asked Congress for? Over $120 million. You see the picture. At today’s price, helicopter expenditures notwithstanding, it costs roughly $2,000 for the upkeep of one captive horse for one year, or $48K per horse over its lifetime, not counting inflation. Adding $30 million for 15,000 more captive horses every year, It will be a cool $500 MILLION A YEAR come the tenth year, for about a quarter billion wild horses in captivity.

In other words, around 2030, BLM will have to ask Congress for half a billion dollar for that year, for no better purpose than to warehouse 250K captured wild horses for life. Considering that it is already like pulling teeth on the $100M level, what would Congress’s reaction be when BLM asks for $500M? And if Congress can’t or won’t pay? What then will the BLM do with its quarter-million captive horses they won’t have the money to feed?
Mass slaughter looks high on the list, whether we like it or not. And this time, if we don’t like it, tough, since the alternative would be to let the 250,000 captives starve to death.

Now, let us pause and ask a pertinent question. Four in fact.

1. Had HSUS, ASPCA & RTF et al thought their “10 Years to AML” through before presenting it to BLM?

2. Had BLM thought their “Path Forward” program through before adopting it as official policy?

3, Had Congress thought the 10 years through before cutting the first $100M “Path Forward” check to the BLM, and the second for $130M, and the third for $160M… Does Congress, itself the thinking body, also think no more than one move ahead? And a 4th question pertinent to TODAY.

4. If Congress sees the disaster towards which BLM’s “Path Forward” bandwagon is hurtling, would it continue to fuel it year after year, at escalating cost, much less stay on board the crashing train till the bitter end? Or will it take decisive leadership and action and control over the crashing BLM train before it is too late?

Fast forward to the present.

While the going rate of commercial grazing on private land is about $22 per cow per month, the BLM, in sharp contrast, “charges” cattle barons the “welfare” rate of only about $1.40 for same (i.e. per cow or 6 goats or 6 sheep per month), thus its giveaway price of $1.40 per AUM (Animal Unit Month) on Public Land.

Currently, there are approximately 1.5 million cow-equivalents grazing on public land for part of the year, for simplicity’s sake say about 6 months each per year (which I equate in calculation to half a horse, which grazes year round). The total “revenue” to BLM would be. $1.40 x 1.5M x 6 = $12.6 million. Some in Congress might consider $12.6M a reasonable return for its $100M “investment”, and so it shells out the $millions to BLM.

Now the Marr-Downer Plan stipulates a reduction of 300K cattle out of the current 1.5M cattle-equivalents, in exchange for raising the horse-AML by about 140K (from 27K up to 170K). On the surface, this would lower the BLM “revenue” somewhat (down by about $2.5 million from $12.6 million to about $10 million. So, from an investment’s point of view it is a loss, though even so not a heavy one. But why charge the miniscule $1.40 rather than the $22 in the first place? And if reducing the cattle population by 20% is a big deal to BLM financially, then just raise the grazing fee from $1.40 to $1.68 per AUM. We all live with inflation, unless ranchers are immune.

Compare the current death spiral ending in mass slaughter to the outcome of Phase-1 of the Marr-Downer Plan, if/when it is adopted:

1. The cattle population will have been deduced by 20% from 1.5 million down to 1.2 million.

2. The horse AML will have been raised from 27K to 170K, which will accommodate all wild equids, currently on range or not.

3. The captive population of about 70K will have been released, and rewilded according to the Downer Reserve Design guidelines, which, added to the extant on-range population of, say, about 90K, will yield a new total of about 90K + 70K = 160K wild horses on range, and zero off-range in captivity.

4. Since the new AML (170K) is HIGHER than the new on-range population (160K) by 10K, the term “10-years-to-AML” is rendered meaningless, which in turn renders ROUND-UP unnecessary and unjustifiable, even by BLM’s own figures. This effortlessly grounds the helicopters at once without trying, while inadvertently saving millions of dollars in helicopter expenses.

5. Since the expensive HOLDING FACILITIES are now empty and no more horses are being rounded-up, they can be CLOSED, permanently, thus SAVING the $100M+ pointlessly spent on them.

6. Meanwhile, the BLM continues to reap the $1.40 per AUM for the remaining cattle, which amounts to $1.4 x 1,200,000 x 6 = $1 million per year in “revenue”.

7. The pertinent question arises on how the new population of 160K can be prevented from exceeding the new AML of 170K, when BLM could conceivably come back with the helicopter. There are several schools of thought on how this is to be accomplished, including reintroduction of natural predators into wild horse reserves, and/or use of mild maintenance contraception with whatever most humane, harmless and effective temporary contraceptive method available at the time. (Note that I am not mentioning any manufacturer or brand name.) Like human contraception before, wild horse contraception is one of the hottest debated issues, and arguably the worse divider in the wild horse advocacy community, and I am leaving this door open for debate, as long as, in the mean time, the raising of the AML, the reduction of cattle, the rewilding of the equine captives, the grounding of the helicopters and the closing of the holding facilities… will go ahead.

So, from the “investor’s” point of view, the financial picture will have changed from $100M+ outlay with a $12.6M returned, to $0 outlay (no helicopters and holding facilities) and still producing $10M in return. One does not have to be an accountant or investor to pick the latter as the better option. And, as pointed out before, there would be no loss if BLM would just raise the grazing fee from $1.40 to $1.68 per AUM, and if some ranchers won’t abide, then theirs would be among the 300K cattle to be pulled from public land. If BLM is set on the $1.40, then it could still ask Congress to raise its budget by that “lost” amount. Whether Congress would agree is another matter, and if not, well, raise the grazing fee.

A somewhat ignoble use of a small percentage of the saved $100M+ would be to “compensate” a rancher “forced off public land” with a “severance package” of some sort. Other than a check, it just so happens that after the captive horses have been released, the thus vacated Holding Pastures can be used for grazing a portion of the displaced cattle at a much higher density in a rich pasture environment. In fact, that could be a “rancher’s choice”.

The saved $100M+ can be used far more nobly, creatively, humanely, meaningfully, constructively, productively and beneficially than for “compensating” ranchers and funding wild-horse roundups and pointlessly warehousing. Congress can be persuaded to do more important things with that money that need be done but have yet to be done due to funding limitations, such as repairing the land, addressing climate change, creating wild horse reserves, restituting natural vegetation (esp. re. cheat grass), buying back water rights currently being hoarded by private entities for their own private use, including ranching, and for CREATING NEW WATER in a drying landscape by drilling new water wells in all HMAs (Herd Management Areas) that need them. These are infinitely worthier projects in their own right, and now, there is the money to do them with. Why waste it on helicopters and I repeat, POINTLESS holding facilities?

At this point, the very logical question should have arisen regarding how to keep the wild horse/burro population from exceeding the new AML at all times to prevent a return of roundup, and it will be controversial. There are multiple alternatives, from reintroduction of the natural predators by law, to a range of fertility control technologies currently in existence or not. We will collectively work this out if/when the time comes. Let’s remind ourselves, that some of us may not like reintroduction of predators, and others may not like fertility control, but NONE OF US like ROUNDUP. So, let’s sit down and work it out. Look at it this way. If we do have this potential conflict to contend with and to resolve, then may I say that our war has already been won.

Finally, in my humble opinion, the most powerful motivator for Congress itself to change course, and obligate BLM, the ranchers and mining companies themselves to follow suit, before it is too late, is the fatal trajectory of BLM’s “10-years-to-AML” program, which will lead directly to financial unaffordability and mass slaughter, or mass starvation of the quarter million incarcerated wild horses and burros the BLM can no longer afford to feed. And what about the escalating amounts leading up towards the $500M that Congress will have already paid the BLM in previous years, totaling in the $billions?

The time for Congress and BLM to change course is NOW, because the longer we delay, the more captive horses there will be, and the more Congress will have to shell out to BLM to stave off slaughtering them.

Note: the graphic was made back in 2021. Bear in mind that the longer we wait to implement the Marr Plan, the higher the AML will have to be raised.

If Congress could now see far enough ahead to realize that not only is it fueling BLM’s train-to-disaster, it is on board that train itself. What Congress needs is a new train on a new track, one WITHOUT ROUNDUP & CAPTIVITY, immediately or sooner. And the best if not only replacement for BLM’s “Path Forward” is the Marr-Downer Plan.

Can Congress tell BLM to raise the AML and adopt the Marr-Downer Plan as new wild horse management policy? Absolutely, especially, to BLM, as an alternative to zero funding. Whoever controlling the purse string calls the shots.