BLM announces wild horse management direction

Jun 11, 2010

In a press release dated June 3, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director Bob Abbey revealed that the agency is taking the Federal Wild Horse and Burro Program "in an unprecedented new direction." More to the point, BLM is seeking in-depth public comment on a Strategy Development Document designed to implement Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar’s Wild Horse and Burro Initiative.

"It’s a new day, and we need a fresh look at the Wild Horse and Burro Program," Abbey said. "As part of this effort, we want all those with an interest in wild horses and burros and their public lands to consider our initial ideas and offer their own."

Last October, Salazar rolled out a new wild horse management proposal which emphasized using birth control to manage horse populations and recommended the opening of sanctuaries in the Midwest and east to help absorb the surplus of horses currently in short-term holding. The "new direction" announced by Abbey last week is not so much a departure from this proposal as it is an attempt to engage the public in further crafting and developing Salazar’s plan. Following a 60-day comment period, BLM will finalize its long-term strategy for wild horse management which will be recommended to Congress later in the year.

BLM has recruited the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution to assist in developing this public outreach plan.

Explained Abbey, "We asked them to take a detailed look at how the BLM could best engage the public in creating a new strategic plan for the program. We requested the institute’s assistance with this effort for two reasons: to let people know that we are committed to working with all stakeholders in a transparent manner, and to encourage an open, positive dialogue with the public."

Opening up policymaking to public participation is bound to produce suggestions from across the spectrum, from reasonable to nonsensical. That, in a sense, seems to be part of the aim of BLM’s new approach: to hear out all views, and to consider a vast choice of possible options.

"We’re open to suggestions that are outside the box," said Tom Gorey, BLM senior public affairs specialist. BLM is willing to consider possible management actions that "wouldn’t necessarily have been envisioned last October," Gorey continued. For example, one of the possible management actions might be to test pilot a herd to see if the herd’s population would self regulate.

"We don’t see evidence for that," said Gorey, "but it might be possible to try that with one herd and see if, in fact, the herd does regulate itself."

Other possible actions up for consideration include: implementation of a comprehensive animal welfare program; the potential reintroduction of wild horses or burros into former herd areas where horses currently don’t exist; opportunities to make more forage available for wild horse and burro use; the establishment of preserves to care for unadopted wild horses; and the designation of selected wild horses and burros as treasured herds.

"We’ll just see what comments come in, and those that stand up to scrutiny are going to be the best ones," Gorey remarked. "Not every idea is going to be viable. We nevertheless want to throw it open to whoever has an interest in this issue."

It remains far from clear just how fruitful this exercise will be, particularly when many of the activist groups who are among the BLM’s most vocal detractors do not accept many of the basic facts about horse reproductive rates and current population that BLM has established. Indeed, many of these groups maintain that BLM’s actual but unstated goal is to rid the public lands of all wild horses. How these groups could productively shape policy when there is so little common ground, even on the basics, is open to speculation.

On the prospect of dealing with these groups, Gorey remarked, "It’s going to be interesting. We realize that some parties take a much harder line and negative attitude toward the BLM than some others. Nevertheless, we’re encouraging all stakeholders, and that includes really any that’s interested in the management of the western public rangelands to weigh in with their comments. In terms of those who have been our most vociferous critics, I certainly would say it’s going to be a challenge because (of) disagreements over ... fundamentals. We don’t pretend that there aren’t some strong disagreements on some of the science."

The Cloud Foundation is one group which has continually accused BLM of bad faith in its stated mission to protect America’s wild horses. Ginger Katherns, Cloud Foundation founder and volunteer executive director, takes a dim view of BLM’s new public outreach initiative, which she sees as more of a bid for positive PR than a good faith attempt to gather comment.

"They have been accepting the public’s comments for eight months, but they have paid absolutely no attention to the public’s comments," stated Katherns, referring to the time elapsed since the roll out of Salazar’s original plan. "It would be really great if we had some new people in [the BLM] who can think outside the box. They talk about this being a whole new way of looking at wild horse management. It’s not. ... It is a continuation of the same strategy, which is the removal of all horses from public land."

The Cloud Foundation has called for a moratorium on gathers, as well as an increase of the numbers of horses on BLM herd management areas (HMAs), claiming that at present rates, the horses do not have enough genetic diversity to survive. "If the AMLs [Allowable Management Levels] are not raised," remarks Katherns, "the wild horses are going to die out."

Katherns also suggested that horse numbers could be increased by eliminating cattle grazing on HMAs, which would leave more of the resource for wild horses. She stated: "Another alternative is to remove the livestock in designated herd areas and pay livestock permitees not to graze their cattle." Katherns continued, "The American public that I talk to, and I speak to thousands of people all over the country, are appalled to think that we’re losing our wild horses on one hand, and yet we’re supporting welfare grazing programs." She also stated, "We believe that the largest stakeholder is the American public, and that’s who we represent."

Sue Wallis is executive director of United Horsemen, a non-profit organization that aims to address the nationwide overpopulation of horses through rehabilitation of desirable horses and promoting humane slaughter of horses past their useful lives.

Regarding BLM’s new approach, Wallis comments, "The one thing we really applaud ... is [the BLM’s] commitment to controlling the number of horses on the federal lands."

However, Wallis is critical of the BLM’s decision that as part of its new strategy, euthanasia of healthy excess animals or their sale without limitation for slaughter will be "off the table."

"We think it is very short-sighted and irresponsible of them to take horse slaughter off of the table. [T]hat’s wrong and narrow-sighted. Because those are, in fact, the only humane and responsible solutions to the problem we have on our hands that’s not going to take enormous amounts of tax-payer dollars."

Wallis emphasizes that although United Horsemen advocates humane slaughter, they are very much in favor of healthy, viable herds of wild horses.

"We wholeheartedly believe that wild horses belong on the land, and in the West on federal lands is an appropriate place for them to be. They just need to be maintained in numbers that’s not going to destroy the land and the ecosystem," she said.

According to Wallis, though wild horses should be protected, their status as a national symbol should not come at the expense of other public land uses: "Why should wild horses—which are a feral invasive species, not native wildlife—why should a single species be given precedent over all the existing native wildlife or the other multiple uses of the federal lands?"

"Just like any ... private land owner, the government needs to control the animals on their land to best preserve the resource base. The last thing the United States tax payers need to be doing is buying the federal government more land to handle animals that they refuse to manage."

Public comments are being accepted between June 3 and Aug. 3 and can be submitted through a link on the BLM website at . The National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board is hosting a public workshop on the Wild Horse and Burro Public Comment Document on Monday, June 14, 2010, from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm at the Magnolia Hotel, 818 17th Street, Denver, CO. Relevant documents can be found on the BLM website. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent