BLM moves to bait trap horses, scale back helicopter gathers

Apr 6, 2012

In a move to placate critics who complain that gathering wild horses with helicopters is cruel and overly stressful, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced last week that the agency is soliciting bids from contractors to capture and remove wild horses with the use of bait traps “where helicopter drive trapping is not an effective method.”

According to BLM wild horse and burro specialist Lili Thomas, the new approach will help BLM remove small bands of horses that have left horse management areas or are otherwise isolated or difficult to get to.

“There are places that are very difficult for a helicopter to actually move horses,” Thomas explained. “[What] we have found by doing small, local bait trapping contracts is that if [contractors] go in there and set up, it may take them a year to get 40 head of horses off one horse management area, [but] that’s better than I can do with a helicopter.”

In the March 28 news release, BLM indicated that bait trapping of wild horses is not a new technique and has been used sporadically in specific locations in the past, particularly in areas where helicopters are unable to reach horses due to densely wooded surroundings. However, the announcement signaled a shift in BLM policy toward a more widespread and ongoing use of the technique, employing multiple contractors trapping across a sixstate region.

“The BLM is committed to continuously improving its management of wild horses and burros,” said BLM Wild Horse and Burro Division Chief Joan Guilfoyle. “Deploying this new method of bait trapping enhances our ability to gather animals more effectively in certain areas of the West, while minimizing the impact to the animals.”

Bait trapping of wild horses typically involves luring horses into concealed corrals using feed, water or sexual attraction (a mare in heat) as an incentive. BLM indicated that feed and water are effective as bait only in circumstances of relative scarcity, implying that the method would perhaps be used as a means of removing horses in time of drought. However, BLM also maintained that bait trapping has typically been implemented in areas where “timeliness is not an issue, as bait trapping usually occurs over several weeks or months,” raising the question of whether it makes sense to use a long-term, low-yield method like bait trapping where food and water are scarce.

Thomas clarified the strategy, explaining that baiting would take place in times of moderate scarcity, like winter, but that critical shortages would require a more direct approach.

“[Bait trapping] is not to replace helicopter gathers, because it can’t,” Thomas maintained. “They do two different things. Bait trapping is for smaller numbers. It’s for a small, targeted area. … This is just another tool for us to be able to use.”

BLM is also hopeful that the technique will provide a slow, steady trickle of horses into the agency’s long-term holding facilities, creating less of the sudden inundation that is caused when hundreds or thousands of horses are gathered at once, which often results in large numbers of horses being boarded in expensive shortterm holding facilities.

Despite BLM’s claim that bait trapping is to be used primarily where helicopter gathers are not effective, it is also clear that the agency is keeping its options open with regard to expanding the use of trapping, potentially reducing the number of helicopter gathers in the future. According to Thomas, there is little telling at this stage how far the bait trapping program might go.

“It’s a really different concept,” Thomas explained.

“It’s probably going to evolve into things that we don’t realize now because we’ve never gone into bait trapping in as big a way as this. … It may turn into a lot more things.”

Critics may argue that expanding the use of trapping, which takes substantially more time and captures many fewer horses than helicopters, is not timely given that BLM is currently responsible for removing approximately 12,000 head of horses from the range to meet the appropriate management level for rangeland health. There are also questions about the costs of the strategy. Although trapping requires fewer people and less infrastructure, the time a contractor is engaged is significantly longer than the few days it takes to complete a helicopter gather. The contracts BLM has offered up for bid last a full year and can be renewed for four subsequent years.

The response from activist groups has been mixed.

Humane Society of the United States wildlife scientist Stephanie Boyles Griffin told environmental news outlet Greenwire that the strategy constituted a “good first step.”

“We’re really delighted about this,” Griffin continued. “It’s a turning point for an agency, and it shows they are listening to public opinion about the current program and starting to implement changes based on that.”

On the other hand, other groups fretted that increased bait trapping was merely a continuation of what they see as a misguided BLM policy of decreasing wild horse populations through gathers.

Despite the fact that wild horses double their numbers every four to five years, according to BLM, some groups have continued to fear that removing horses from the range will result in their eventual extermination.

“We are concerned the BLM’s new proposal to bait trap, over long periods of time, will zero-out wild horses in the West,” asserted Anne Novak, executive director for the activist group Protect Mustangs. “The agency will continue helicopter roundups as well.

There is no proof to justify the alleged ‘excess’ amounts of wild horses. [L]et’s find the win-win and stop wasting tax dollars on irresponsible mustang removals.”

Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent