BLM "accelerates"reform of horse and burro plan

Mar 3, 2011

— Program will scale back gathers

To people in the business of working with cattle and horses, the saying "slower is faster" is a time-worn chestnut. Ramming and jamming cows can cause a wholesale run-back, ruining an hour or a day’s work. Pushing a young horse or dog too hard and too fast can cause issues that take months to undo. Sometimes the only real way to speed these processes up is to slow them down.

Ranchers, however, are not the only ones to have seen the wisdom of this approach. In its own way, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) appears to be firmly on board with the "slower is faster" philosophy, as evidenced by its announcement Feb. 24 that it will be "accelerating" reforms to its Wild Horse and Burro program by reducing the removal of excess horses from the overstocked range over at least the next two years.

In a press release, BLM Director Bob Abbey announced that after receiving over 9,000 public comments in response to Interior Secretary Ken Salazer’s Wild Horse Initiative, the BLM is speeding reforms to the costly and controversial Wild Horse and Burro Program.

Abbey explained, "[t]o achieve our goal of improving the health of the herds and America’s public lands, we need to enlist the help of partners, improve transparency and responsiveness in the program, and reaffirm science as the foundation for management decisions. It will take time to implement these reforms, but as a first step, we are aiming to increase adoptions and broaden the use of fertility control. And while we do this, we are reducing removals while NAS [National Academy of Sciences] helps us ensure that our management is guided by the best available science."

BLM has commissioned NAS to evaluate the existing scientific methods used by BLM in the management of horses, and to make recommendations on how methods can be improved. Results of the NAS study are expected in early 2013. With the exception of emergency gathers, horse populations will be maintained at present levels until the results of the NAS study are known.

"While the BLM is concerned that forage limitations may require the removal of more ... animals in case of drought or other emergencies," stated the agency, "it has decided to adopt this more conservative gather approach pending the findings of the NAS."

Additional improvements to the program mentioned by Abbey include increased animal welfare monitoring, increased engagement of the public—including volunteer opportunities and more viewing opportunities at gathers—and increased transparency.

BLM’s decision to freeze horse populations at current levels while the NAS study is carried out raises some serious questions.

Today, there are approximately 35,500 horses that roam freely on the public range, according to BLM’s latest estimates. BLM has made clear that that number must be reduced by about 10,000 horses—approximately 25 percent—to 26,600, in order to achieve the Appropriate Management Level (AML) at which horses will not damage rangeland health. BLM is charged by law to maintain horse populations at AML for the benefit of the range, to maintain a balance with other multiple uses such as grazing and wildlife, and for the welfare of the horses themselves.

Yet, according to last week’s announcement, BLM is reducing the number of horses to be removed over the next two years by 24 percent, down from 10,000 to approximately 7,600, "a level that would essentially maintain the existing number of wild horses and burros on the range," according to BLM.

This would mean that the range will be supporting 25 percent more horses than is considered sustainable.

In addition to potentially degrading the range, maintaining a wild horse population 25 percent over AML while the NAS study is going on could also have significant negative consequences for public lands ranchers. Excessive horse numbers have lead to reduced available Animal Unit Months in the past, particularly in years where forage is scarce.

Tom Gorey, senior public affairs specialist at the BLM Washington office, acknowledged that the number of horses might have an impact on cattle grazing.

"I think there’s going to be some sight-specific impacts, but I can’t tell … where and when those would be," Gorey remarked. "The big picture is that it’s temporary, we’ll look at impacts [that are] reported back to us from the field that seem to be particularly noteworthy, and we’ll deal with those on a case-by-case basis."

Local BLM offices will also be scrambling to reallocate resources, focusing the limited gathers in areas where the need for wild horse population control is most extreme.

"We recognize the potential risk there, and we will focus attention on areas that seem to be at the greatest risk," said Gorey.

One question this policy raises is: Why doesn’t BLM simply continue its current gather schedule—avoiding potential damage to the range and likely emergency gathers—instead of maintaining the bloated population of horses for several years while the NAS study proceeds?

According to Gorey’s analysis, budget issues are part of the reason. "We’re in an uncertain budget situation," Gorey explained. "With all the factors that we have to deal with simultaneously here, it just made sense to scale back temporarily on the gathers. Those dollars can be used for the NAS study, and for (off-range) holding. We … recognize that AML is important, and we’re not backing off our current science."

On the other hand, it is clear that the budget isn’t the only reason gathers are being cut by 24 percent.

"We’re trying to engage with the public, and some of this strategy reflects public input," said Gorey.

Discussing some other expected changes, Abbey explained in a telephone press conference late last month that BLM hopes to make fertility control the main method of on-range population management in the future.

"We … plan to significantly increase the number of mares treated with fertility control from 500 that we treated in 2009, to a target of 2,000 each year for the next couple years," Abbey explained. "Our ultimate goal is to make various fertility control measures the primary means to maintain a healthy population level."

Abbey added that developing fertility control drugs "assumes more sufficient budget allocations," but he did not elaborate on how much extra funding would be necessary to support an effective research effort.

BLM has been using Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP), a non-hormonal contraceptive, on an experimental basis.

Yet according to a review of the Wild Horse Program issued by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) last December, fertility control is not yet well enough developed to provide an effective solution to population control issues. According to that report, "BLM currently uses two population control measures during gathers: PZP and gender ratio adjustment. Neither 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."

As of December, only 2,825 mares had been given PZP over an entire seven-year experimental period. The drug is only effective for one, or at best two years, after which the horses need to be gathered and retreated. According to the OIG report, "BLM is currently using a formulation of PZP that should be administered to 70 to 90 percent of breeding mares to effectively reduce population growth."

Yet BLM’s target goal of treating 2,000 mares a year over the next several years equals a mere 6 percent of the existing on-range population, a fraction of what is necessary. Given that the mares must also be gathered to receive PZP, it is unclear how BLM’s choice to reduce gathers for the next several years while the results of the NAS study are awaited will help to speed the use of PZP as a widespread form of population control.

In general, the OIG report found that both PZP and sex ratio adjustments had limited utility as a form of population control.

"Due to the large size of herds and vastness of the HMAs [herd management areas]," the report stated, "the effectiveness of fertility control using PZP is currently limited. …Gender ratio adjustment requires that nearly all the wild horses and burros be gathered, segregated by gender, and released at appropriate gender ratio levels. Although horse populations might be controlled effectively in smaller HMAs, the sheer number of horses in the larger HMAs precludes this as an effective overall population control technique."

Although Abbey’s statement suggested that additional research will be undertaken by BLM in cooperation with the Humane Society of the United States to hasten the discovery of a more effective form of PZP, there is no indication how long this will take.

Gorey emphasized that the shortcomings of PZP will not compromise BLM’s commitment to maintaining healthy horse populations.

"In an ideal world, we would prefer to rely on fertility control," said Gorey. "[But] we’ll deal with conditions on the ground as we see them, and if PZP is not having the kind of population suppression results that we need, then we’ll have to off-set that with other measures," such as sex ratio adjustment and gathers.

"I think that part of this is a reflection of [the fact that] the public is interested in how far … fertility control can take us, so we want to step it up and get a more comprehensive look at how effective it is."

In the press conference, Abbey also mentioned that redoubled efforts to expand wild horse adoptions would be used to accelerate population control. By working with the Mustang Heritage Foundation, Abbey explained, BLM hopes to adopt out 4,000 wild horses in 2011.

But adoption rates have been declining since the mid-’90s, recently sped by the economic recession. Wild horse adoptions stood at an all-time low of 2,960 last year, down from 6,644 in 2004. Without a significant change in economic climate, it is doubtful how realistic a renewed interest in wild horse adoption will be. Further, even if adoptions did increase by 1,000 horses a year, the number of horses that must be annually removed from the range would still vastly outstrip demand.

Abbey added that BLM will no longer be pursuing the possibility of placing excess wild horses on refuges in the Midwest and East, maintaining that the proposal was unpopular with the public.

The results of the anticipated NAS study will unquestionably put BLM’s future wild horse policy on firmer scientific footing. At present, however, BLM’s "accelerated" reforms do not appear to address in any meaningful way the outstanding problem of the wild horse issue which was identified by a 2008 Government Accountability Office study: How to control the wild horse population. Although Abbey offered fertility control and increased adoptions as the preferred measures, these approaches have well-known limitations, also documented in government reports.

The problem, as Abbey stated it, is that "We have almost 10,000 [horses] above what we believe to be the ability of the rangelands to sustain over the long term."

It is unclear how reducing gathers, increasing volunteer opportunities, and soliciting the engagement of the public will speed BLM toward a viable solution of that predicament. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent