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Lawmakers, agency look for ways to safely round up 82,000 wild horses spread across 10 states

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The federal government is corralling some of the 82,000 wild horses living on public lands in ten western states. This year the bureau, known as BLM, is tasked with slimming the herds of wild horses and burros to 20,000. To help heard the animals, the bureau uses special tools like helicopters.

Jeff Fontana has been working with the Federal Bureau of Land Management for more than 30 years—helping care for America’s wild horses. 

“Helicopters are a safe and efficient way to move a large number of animals across a landscape,” Fontana told CBS News’ Joy Benedict at the Twin Peaks Range in Lassen Couty, California. 

It is a pursuit that can last miles as the chopper descends on a group of horses and traps them in one area.  

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According to Fontana, it is relatively safe for horses although injuries do occur. 

“Our track record is really good in this program injuries resulting in death from our gather activities are less than one-half of one percent,” Fontana said.

Horses can die through BLM’s helicopter gather tactics, the same way they can die from range due to degraded resources caused by overpopulation, Fontana said.

Jason Lutterman works for the Wild Horse and Burro Program which is operating 46 roundups in the west this year. He said that it is essential to keep herds the right size to ensure there is enough food and water for all.  

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“Wild horses increase at 15-20% a year if we were not here to manage that growth, the herds will keep growing and eventually degrade the land enough to where they will run out of food and water,” Lutterman said. 

“Our goal is to manage healthy herds on healthy public lands. And so, the way we can do that is to make sure that there is enough resources out here for those animals to survive,” he said. 

The BLM manages 26.9 million acres of land. It was established in the 1940s to oversee and preserve federal lands and lease them for lucrative livestock grazing. But when wild mustangs started being hunted, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971 to protect them and the land they live on.  

But using helicopters as a way to round up wild horses is controversial—with some calling it inhumane.

Nevada Congresswoman Dina Titus has initiated a formal review of what the BLM is doing after she became concerned about if the horses were being rounded up humanely. 

“The charge of the government, of the BLM, is to humanely manage and there’s nothing humane about what’s going on,” she said.

“It wasn’t until some of the activist groups started tracking those roundups, I realized just how horrendous they are. They use helicopters, they run horses down,” Titus added.

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Titus also introduced a bill to ground the helicopters — which last year alone were blamed for the deaths of 25 horses. Titus believes using cowboys would be a more humane method.

“Save a horse and hire a cowboy. They know how to round up horses and I am sure it is more humane than this.”Titus said. 

BLM stopped using cowboys to round about the mustangs in the 1970s. Fontana said that in the past moving horses from horseback was a “really difficult situation.”

The Bureau of Land Management spent more than $450 million dollars in the last 5 years on its wild horse and burro program. Of that total, $25 million went to gathering animals, but most of the money goes to caring for horses in long-term captivity. 

“Unadopted animals are cared for long-term in off-range pastures big open grasslands for these animals to roam for the rest of their lives and yes it does cost around 60% of our budget to care for the unadopted and unsold animals,” said Fontana. 

Although the horses are up for adoption, BLM only monitors adopted horses for the first year. 

Fontana said that horses have been adopted in the past and put up for slaughter although they try to monitor the best they can. 

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“It is something we are acutely aware of and always on top of,” Fontana said.

In one morning, BLM collected 46 horses including 6 foals—most of the animals were sent to temporary holding facilities, except two that were euthanized for poor health. 

A handful of the collected horses will receive birth control and be released. The rest will live a domestic life off the range and away from the land that once made them wild and free. 

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