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Fix the horses

Sep 8, 2017


A feral foal tries to suckle an emaciated mare on an overpopulated Nevada HMA
Photo by Nevada BLM

Several weeks ago, Utah State University hosted the Wild Horse and Burro Summit in Salt Lake City. The summit was open to mainly academia and the state and federal agencies that deal with feral horses and burros. Activist groups were not allowed to attend, which caused an outcry. The meeting was closed so the participants could come up with rational conclusions on how to deal with the problem.

Activists would just create static if allowed inside. So they did it outside by protesting the summit.

There are over 50,000 head of wild horses in feedlots and private pastures right now, and an estimated 73,000 head roaming in and out of the Herd Management Areas (HMAs). The BLM is required to maintain a total population of 26,700 head across all HMAs. The overpopulation of the horses is ruining the range for wildlife, livestock grazing, and other multiple uses. The range resource has been trampled by the horses, in some areas beyond the point of no return.

Researchers showed that the presence of feral horses essentially ran other wildlife off water sources. They placed cameras on every water source in an area that was closed to grazing and found the feral horses dominated a water source. In watering spots occupied by horses, less than half of all birds and mammals would use the water source compared to water sources that didn’t have horse use.

It was agreed at the summit that the wild horses are non-native and a feral species that is crowding out native wildlife and livestock. The horses are ruining the range, the water, and it seems they have a problem sharing water resources with other species.

Feral horse advocates would say that BLM should remove all livestock from the resource. One speaker said, “it’s not a horse vs. cow issue; you can remove all the livestock of the range and let the horses have it.” But with a 15-20 percent rate of annual increase, four years later we would have twice as many horses trying to use those resources. The range will not improve and will still be destroyed for all users both human and wildlife.

The 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act allows the BLM wide discretion to manage the feral horse population, including unrestricted sale of wild horses and culling. However, the public outcry over the feral horses has guided BLM policy decisions. Congress has reduced many of the tools BLM was given in the Act by not allowing euthanasia and unrestricted sale of horses which means for slaughter.

The only tools available to the BLM aren’t great—birth control and gathers. The last effort to control fertility was the introduction of PZP, a fertility drug, which is either injected at a gathering or darted. These fertility drugs are effective for a year maybe two with a booster shot. It was also said that it doesn’t work in the larger HMAs.

It was projected that continuing the remove excess horses from the range and place them in private pastures and holding pens costs tax payers $90 million a year. BLM currently pays ranchers $5/day per horse for holding pens and $2/day for private pasture. BLM currently spends over 50 percent of their budget on feral horse care.

The BLM is frustrated with the program and claims that it is not sustainable. Most folks would agree.

The BLM has its back against the wall on this feral horse issue and it can’t wait any longer. The range resources and being destroyed with the over population of these protected horses. Luckily, Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke understands the problem and is ready to act.

John Ruhe, acting director of the BLM, said we need all the tools in our tool box and we also need support from the local community, local governments and congress. It looks like BLM will get euthanizing horses back, but unrestricted sale seems to be a political stretch.

Over the three-day summit the group never came up with any solutions for policy directives. One item they didn’t talk about much was the PR aspect— how are we going to sell the idea that the feral horse population must be reduced? This is the rural/urban divide issue. The public is in love with free-ranging horses, but there are too many of them. If we don’t get this under control, the horses, the wildlife, and the resources could be damaged forever. — PETE CROW

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