Opponents of wild horse gathers reject studies

Dec 23, 2010

Few issues concerning animal welfare have become as electrifying conductors of emotion as the treatment of wild horses. And the lightning rod in the middle of this tempest is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

In a redoubled effort to address the concerns of a group of vocal critics over the methods employed by its Wild Horse and Burro Program, BLM recently released the results of two separate studies which evaluated the horse gathers and the post-gather handling of the horses. Some activists have claimed these activities are inhumane and unnecessary.

The studies, one conducted by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Interior, the other by four independent academics specializing in equine sciences, largely agreed that the treatment of wild horses by BLM was humane and appropriate. Further, the OIG report determined that routinely gathering and removing some horses from the range is “necessary and justified,” given that the wild horse population doubles in size approximately every four years and the horses have no natural predators.

Yet activists are calling both studies an elaborate “whitewash,” and persist in their allegations that BLM is engaging in a shady game of special interest politics with the ultimate unadvertised goal of eliminating wild horses on much of the public lands.

Recognizing “fiercely competing interests and highly charged differences of

opinion” in its Dec. 13 report, OIG also noted that “[e]ach year the number of wild horses and burros the … BLM manages increases, as does the level of public interest and scrutiny. With this in mind, we conducted an inspection of the BLM program to determine if wild horse and burro gathers are necessary and justified, and if wild horses and burros are being mistreated.

“We found that BLM lands cannot sustain the growing population of wild horses and burros and that the growing population of these animals must be addressed to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance of the authorized uses of the land. Gathers are an essential means to control the population and are, therefore, necessary and justified actions.”

The report emphasized that recent efforts to control populations by using contraceptive drugs and adjusting sex ratios are not sufficient to control populations, stating that “[n]either of these measures currently provides an effective means to limiting the population of wild horses and burros at a level that can be sustained on public lands.”

The report urged “urgent and aggressive” action on developing and enhancing population control methods, but did not give specific direction as to what methods should be used. Despite the fact that law requires unadoptable excess horses be destroyed, BLM has opted out of euthanasia or sale without limitation as management tools, instead choosing to house excess horses in expensive holding facilities.

Without population control, OIG “estimates population growth from 38,365 in 2010 to 238,000 by 2020 on public land.”

The OIG report also found that horses were being gathered and handled appropriately, concluding that “BLM and its contractors did not treat any wild horses and burros inhumanely.”

This finding was largely echoed by the four equine specialists who participated in the Independent Designated Observer Pilot Program Report, a study commissioned by the American Horse Protection Association (AHPA). According to its website, AHPA is a non-profit horse welfare organization which is active in the passage and enforcement of animal welfare laws, and provides a shelter for unwanted horses.

AHPA selected Carolyn Stull, Ph.D., from the University of California at Davis and an authority on animal welfare to lead the Pilot Program study. Stull then selected an additional three nationally-recognized equine specialists to participate: Camie Heleski, Ph.D., from Michigan State University; Betsy Greene, Ph.D., from the University of Vermont; and Sarah Ralston, DVM, Ph.D., from Rutgers University.

Although the report recommended a number of ways BLM could improve its handling of the horses, the group’s findings were largely favorable.

“[BLM] crews … appeared to be gentle and knowledgeable [and] used acceptable methods for moving horses forward as endorsed by Temple Grandin,” stated the report, adding that “[c]hutes and pens were set up in a manner that reflected recommended handling practices for reducing animal stress in trap facilities.”

“[H]orses did not exhibit undue stress or show signs of extreme sweating or duress due to the helicopter portion of the gather, maintaining a trot or canter gait only as they entered the wings of the trap …The helicopter’s precision was favorably noted, and compared to a dog working sheep.”

The use of helicopters has been a hot-button issue with critics, who argue that helicopters terrorize horses while stampeding them for miles without rest.

The equine scientists criticized BLM on a number of points, as well, suggesting, among other things, that padding should be placed on overhead rails, and that strict criteria should be used to determine if and when roping and tying horses is necessary.

BLM stated that it will “review and respond to each recommendation,” according to its website.

Yet some activists remain unconvinced that the study was done in good faith. Deniz Bolbol of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign (AWHPC) accused the government of stacking the deck in its favor by hand-selecting participants who would not be critical of BLM practices.

“We call the report inappropriate,” stated Bolbol. “It was obviously done by cherry-picked individuals. …[J]ust like the OIG report, these are two whitewashed reports that are completely politically motivated. …Both of them are devised to squelch the tremendous controversy that is surrounding the program.”

What is true is that the executive director of AHPA, Robin Lohnes, also sits on the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, a panel of nine BLM-appointed individuals who represent various interests associated with wild horses. However, AHPA selected only Stull, a recognized authority in animal welfare, to lead the study. Stull herself selected the other members.

Bolbol also was concerned that the equine scientists were unqualified to assess whether the wild horses were being treated humanely.

“As it turns out, the observers all happen to be people who do not have hands-on experience with wild horses,” she said.

“[B]asically, these are folks that have academic backgrounds, domestic equine backgrounds, and really don’t have the expertise and understanding and knowledge of wild horses. And so they’re completely inappropriate individuals to be doing … humane observing.”

Study participant Ralston, who is a veterinarian and studied the feeding behavior of horses, rejected the allegation that wild horse behavior is incomparable with the behavior of other horses. She cited her experience working with wild BLM mustangs in the equine program at Rutgers as confirming this view.

Ralston also rejected the allegations of a whitewash, emphasizing that the Pilot Program study made extensive recommendations to BLM on how handling of the horses could be improved.

“We criticized them. We did not rubber-stamp them,” said Ralston. “[And] [t]he only contact I’d had with the BLM prior to my involvement with this particular group …was with our local East Coast regional director” to locate unwanted horses for a rehabilitation program.

Despite allegations to the contrary, the equine scientists were reimbursed only for travel expenses. Participants were not paid to contribute to the study.

Yet it appears that suspicion of collusion within BLM has only been heightened by the release of the studies, not quelled by it. Bolbol of AWHPC alleges that ranching and mining interests control BLM and are using their influence to eliminate horse herds for their own financial gain. Despite the inspector general’s finding that wild horse populations are rapidly expanding, Bolbol claims the herds are being “zeroed out.”

“These populations are being decimated,” says Bolbol. “The BLM treats [the horses] like vermin. They want to get them off the land like they’re vermin.”

Tom Gorey, BLM public relations specialist, rejected the allegations.

“We’re seeing the spectacle of our critics claiming that two independently-conducted studies are ‘whitewashes,’” said Gorey. He suggested that the public will not likely be persuaded by the BLM’s detractors.

“You’re asking the public to believe that there is a conspiracy so grand that [BLM] can get two reports within a period of weeks … with the same positive findings” which should both be dismissed as tainted.

“It … destroys the critics’ credibility as honest watchdogs.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent