I usually learn something new at every conference, and this weekend was no exception. Timothy Fidzgerald of Montana State University presented a joint paper on the Wild Horse and Burro Program. I didn’t know this, but the Western US has a substantial (nearly 40,000) population of wild horses and burros, which originated from the escaped animal population of early settlers. Today, they are officially protected by the US government (i.e., you cannot capture or kill them). It also happens that these horses have no natural predators, so their population would constantly be rising were it not for periodic “gathers” of these horses. Now, don’t worry, these horses aren’t then killed. They’re de-wormed, vaccinated and put up for adoption or sale (but not to slaughterhouses).
So what is a post like this doing on a policy blog? Well, the cost of this program last year was $65 million and is continuously rising. The problem is that holding a horse costs about $13,000, but most end up being sold at a fraction of that price. The largest cost of the program is holding the horses and the revenue is not nearly high enough to offset that. The only population controls are the periodic gathers of the horses; there is no sterilization program. Moreover, there is a price floor on the adoption fee for the horses, even though a good portion of the horses is not adopted.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big advocate of the humane treatment of animals. But it seems as though sterilizing and re-releasing some of these horses would be a much more cost-effective way to control their population (and the horses might prefer that too!). No one would suggest that sterilizing dogs and cats is inhumane; in fact, most animal groups believe that IS the humane thing to do. Unfortunately, it also seems as though there are relatively powerful horse advocates out there who are staunch opponents of sterilization. So once again the government is captured by an interest group which insists that we continue to spend money on an unsustainable (and I would argue not well thought-out) program.
This does not seem like a sustainable program to me. Luckily, it is costing us only $70 million (at least this year), which is small change compared to some other government programs. But (a) it is growing at an unsustainable pace and (b) it makes me wonder how many other such programs are out there.
PS Many of the facts are taken from Fidzgerald’s paper, but all the opinions are my own.