BLM yields to pressure; tables wild horse castration

Aug 19, 2011

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has reversed its decision to castrate some 177 wild stallions from the White Mountain and Little Colorado herd management areas (HMAs) in southwestern Wyoming. The plan to castrate the stallions was originally included as part of an upcoming gather to help control the horse population on the two HMAs, which currently is three times over the limit required for sustaining adequate rangeland health, according to BLM.

Though the gather is expected to proceed on Aug. 20, BLM changed its plan to castrate stallions following a lawsuit filed by the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, Western Watersheds Project, and several individuals protesting the decision. BLM will still be removing approximately 696 of the horses from the range and offering them for adoption or putting them in long-term holding. However, in lieu of castration, BLM will instead be treating the mares that are returned to the range with porcine zona pellucida (PVP), a contraceptive drug. Stallions returned to the range will remain intact.

According to recent estimates, the Little Colorado and White Mountain HMAs are currently running a combined population of approximately 970 horses. Yet the combined appropriate management limit (AML) for the two areas is far lower, equaling between 274 and 400.

BLM is required by law to maintain wild horse herds within AML, although shortage of financial resources and pressure from activists has often resulted in herds expanding well beyond that limit.

According to Serena Baker, BLM High Desert District public affairs specialist, the current wet year provides an excellent opportunity to adjust horse numbers before drought conditions create an emergency situation for the horses and other grazing species on public lands.

"We purposefully try and schedule gathers so that we …remove the excess wild horses before any animal faces food or water shortages," said Baker. "That is a situation the BLM does not want to encounter, which is why we are gathering now."

Baker also pointed out that although this year there is no shortage of feed, an overpopulation of horses could be extremely hard on range health and wildlife in subsequent dry years.

"Anytime you have one species overpopulating, it will affect the others," Baker commented. "Wild horses often repeatedly graze in the same areas year-round, so those forage plants … receive very little rest from grazing pressure. The result on the range is a reduction in plant health, vigor, production, and loss of native forage species. That diminishes habitat quality for all ungulates, whether it’s elk or mule deer, pronghorn antelope, [or] horses."

This June, BLM had initially proposed to gather 90 percent of the two herds, remove approximately 696 horses, and castrate and spay the horses that were returned to the range, leaving the remaining un-gathered 10 percent as a reproducing herd. According to Baker, that plan was modified to exclude the spaying component, due to incomplete studies.

But a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., by the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign and Western Watersheds Project challenged the modified plan. The suit requested injunctive relief against the plan to gather the horses and castrate stallions, claiming that the decision would "irreparably disrupt and destroy the social organization, natural wild and free-roaming behavior and viability of these herds," and calling the use of castration "radical" and "controversial."

On Aug. 5, BLM notified the court that the plan to use castration had been scrapped in favor of a second modified plan that will instead use the fertility control drug PVP on the mares.

The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign does not object to the use of PVP.

According to Baker, although the use of castration "has been tabled" for the White Mountain-Little Colorado gather, the BLM views it as both a legal and effective means of managing wild horse populations, calling it a "standard operating procedure" prior to offering male horses for adoption.

"It is a tool that the BLM currently uses for preparing wild horses for adoption," Baker pointed out, "and it is an alternative that BLM is continuing to work with veterinarians and scientists to study the effects of… It’s something that the BLM is continuing to look at."

Baker did not comment on why BLM decided to table the use of castration for this gather, stating that she was unable to comment on pending litigation.

Plaintiffs in the litigation had hoped that the court action would have wider-reaching effects, in particular, enjoining of the use of castration for future gathers. In a memorandum opinion, however, federal Judge Amy Berman Jackson indicated that because BLM had voluntarily abandoned the decision to castrate stallions for the White Mountain-Little Colorado gather, the case was moot and therefore dismissed. Berman Jackson also wrote that her order took no position "on the validity of the Second Modified Decision or any other pending or future decision of the BLM," indicating that the court had neither ruled for or against the use of castration as a legal means of population control. She also specified that the plaintiffs were free to seek judicial review of future BLM plans to use castration.

The White Mountain-Little Colorado lawsuit is the latest episode in BLM’s ongoing struggle to manage wild horses within AML, as the law requires. Yet the tools at BLM’s disposal to accomplish this task have been winnowed down, largely by the federal government’s own hand. Last year, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar indicated that euthanization and sale without limitation were "off the table" as options for reducing wild horse populations. And although Interior has suggested that it may maintain some horse herds as non-reproducing, the current action raises questions about whether they are willing to stick by castration and spaying as population management tools in the face of activist opposition.

The remaining options are limited. Adoptions have fallen off significantly in the past 15 years and in the current economy, are unlikely to pick up.%u3000Storing wild horses off range in long-term holding facilities is extremely costly. And PVP, though somewhat promising, has serious limitations.

PVP has been used on an experimental basis by BLM for several years. Because of its uncontroversial nature, there are hopes that it will play an increasing role in wild horse population control. However, PVP is only known to be effective for two years and, therefore, requires frequent gathers to retreat mares. PVP therefore potentially presents a more costly and less efficient way of controlling horse populations than castration, which is permanent.

Baker maintained that BLM is mindful of costs and is working to make the wild horse program as economical as possible.

"BLM is looking at all alternatives in order to reduce the number of gathers necessary. …A gather is a very expensive operation. It uses a lot of taxpayer dollars, and BLM is trying to be very cognizant of how we use taxpayer dollars." — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent