BLM horse management questioned

Jun 7, 2013

Government bureaucrats and activists were scrambling last Wednesday to digest a long awaited, lengthy wild horse management report to try to determine what it might mean for the future of Mustangs on the 179 herd-management areas in the country.

According to the report provided by the National Research Council, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) current practice of removing free-ranging horses from public lands promotes a high population growth rate, and maintaining them in long-term holding facilities is both economically unsustainable and incongruent with public expectations.

The committee that wrote the report claims that tools already exist for BLM to better manage horses and burros on healthy ecosystems, enhance public engagement and confidence, and make the program more financially sustainable.

They also shared that most free-ranging horse populations are growing at 15 percent to 20 percent a year, meaning these populations could double in four years and triple in six years. With no intervention by BLM, the horse population will increase to the point of self-limitation, where both degradation of the land and high rates of horse mortality will occur due to inadequate forage and water.

In addition, periodic droughts, many of them severe, in the western public lands cause immediate and often unpredicted impacts.

The report also devoted an entire chapter to societal opinions, recommending that BLM find ways to involve citizens in data-gathering and other scientific practices relating to herd management.

According to the committee, there is little if any public support for allowing these impacts on either the horse population or the land to take place, and both go against BLM’s program mission. The committee did conclude that the current removal strategy used by BLM perpetuates the overpopulation problem by maintaining the number of animals at levels below the carrying capacity of the land, protecting the rangeland and the horse population in the short term but resulting in continually high population growth and exacerbating the long-term problem.

To manage horse populations without periodic removals, widespread and consistent application of fertility control would be required, the committee determined. Three methods in particular—porcine zona pellucida and Gona- Con™ for mares and chemical vasectomy for stallions—were identified as effective approaches.

“The committee recommended these approaches based on the evidence of their efficacy with other populations, notably the horses on Assateague Island, but cautioned that scaling up use of these methods to the larger and more disseminated horse populations in the western U.S. will be challenging,” said Guy Palmer, a veterinarian with Washington State University and chair of the study committee.

The committee also strongly recommended that BLM improve and standardize its methodology to estimate population size, stressing the importance of accurate counts as the basis for all management strategies. A large body of scientific literature suggests that the proportion of animals missed in current surveys ranges from 10 percent to 50 percent.

Additionally, an examination of the genetics and health of population groups as well as of the range lands they occupy can be used to assure that both the animal populations and the ecosystem are being appropriately managed. Developing an iterative process whereby public participants could engage with BLM personnel scientists on data gathering and assessment would increase the transparency, quality, and acceptance of BLM’s decision-making process.

Critics of the roundups were quick to respond.

“The NAS [National Academy of Sciences] report is a powerful validation of what wild horse advocates have been saying for years—that the BLM’s ‘business as usual’ is expensive, unproductive and must change,” said Suzanne Roy, American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign director. “The report delivers a strong case for an immediate halt to the roundup and removal of wild horses from the range, an increase in wild horse and burro population levels and implementation of in-the-wild management using available fertility control options.”

In an interview with The Denver Post in May, new Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said that she was waiting for the report to determine the future of BLM’s program.

“This is a turning point for the decades-long fight to protect America’s Mustangs. The NAS has provided Secretary Jewell with a clear roadmap for a fiscally responsible and transparent program that will ensure our wild horses and burros remain on their rangelands,” said Neda DeMayo, president of Return to Freedom. “We stand ready to work with Secretary Jewell and the BLM to implement viable, humane and effective policies that uphold the public’s desire for the government to treat America’s cherished Mustangs and burros fairly and humanely and protect these national icons on our public lands.” — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor