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A new paper in Science argues that the wild-horse population is growing so fast that the government could soon be unable to manage the herds.

There are currently some 33,000 wild horses roaming freely on public lands in the western United States, descendants of horses brought by Spanish conquistadors. Under a 1971 law, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is supposed to protect these horses and make sure their numbers don’t get out of hand — so that they’re not destroying the ecosystem or dying of starvation.

The BLM has long struggled to bring the horse population down to the mandated level of 23,622., with only a few thousand people willing to adopt horses each year.

So, in recent years, BLM has been rounding up excess horses and shipping them off to long-term “retirement” facilities — mainly private ranches in Kansas and Oklahoma. The problem is that this is hugely expensive: There are now 45,000 horses in these facilities, and BLM’s horse budget has soared from $19.8 million in 2000 to $74.9 million in 2012.

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Because Congress has started reining in spending, the BLM has announced that it will remove fewer horses from public lands. At the same time, the wild horses keep breeding, with unmanaged herds able to triple in size in just six to eight years.

The Science paper, written by Robert Garrott of the University of Montana and Madan K. Oli of the University of Florida, calculates that if current trends continue, BLM would have to spend some $1.1 billion over the next 17 years just to keep storing horses in these long-term facilities.

“The worry is we’ll end up like Australia,” says Garrott.

In Australia, the wild-horse population has soared past 400,000, and the government is now reportedly considering shooting tens of thousands of horses in the outback, both to stop the destruction of range land and to alleviate the suffering of horses that have been slowly dying of thirst during a recent drought.

“What do we do when animals are destroying rangeland, competing with livestock and other wildlife, and dying due to starvation and drought?” Garrott says.

In their paper, Garrott and Oli suggest an aggressive vaccine-contraceptives program to cut the birthrates of the wild horses by half. But they say BLM would also need to remove many of the existing wild horses.

Horse slaughter for food is subject to a huge amount of controversy, and horse-meat plants have been closed ever since Congress pulled funding for inspectors in 2007. (Lawmakers have since reinstated those funds, but the reopening of slaughterhouses has still been bogged down by legal disputes.)

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