BLM’s wild horse management must be fixed

By Joanna Grossman, Las Vegas Sun

August 7, 2020

For decades, the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees hundreds of millions of acres of public land, has opted to spend a significant portion of its budget on a failed policy to remove thousands of “excess” wild horses from the range.

Many Americans remain unaware that the federal government devotes more than $50 million each year to stampeding and rounding up horses with helicopters and then stockpiling these free-roaming animals in off-range holding facilities and corrals for the rest of their lives.

But the BLM might finally move away from this inhumane and dangerous practice, thanks to a historic vote in the U.S. House of Representatives last month. As part of a massive spending bill for the upcoming fiscal year, lawmakers approved an amendment directing the BLM to allocate $11 million of its budget to proven, humane fertility control to manage wild horses.

The last time the full House voted to protect wild horses was when the Restore Our American Mustangs (ROAM) Act passed in 2009. The bill sought to bolster protections for wild horses and spare them from slaughter. The Senate, however, failed to approve the measure.

The amendment passed on July 23, championed by Reps. Dina Titus, D-Nev., and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., along with an impressive list of bipartisan cosponsors, could help set a new course for the BLM’s management strategy at a crucial time.

Last year, Congress awarded the BLM an additional $21 million in the hopes that the agency would finally change its ineffective system of removing wild horses from the range. While the total number of horses in the BLM’s holding facilities has stayed roughly the same since 2012 — 46,000 horses — the agency’s budget has ballooned from $75 million to more than $102 million this year.

Rather than try to rein in costs, the BLM, in a recent report to Congress, proposed to double down on roundups. The agency’s long-term “vision” is to accelerate mass removals to the tune of nearly $1 billion over the next five years alone — with minimal commitment to implementing effective fertility control methods to curb population growth.

Over the years, horse advocates have observed foals dying from exhaustion while trying to keep up with their mothers during BLM stampedes, and terrorized horses crashing through barbed wire. Recently, a wild mare suffered a broken neck after colliding with a pen during a helicopter roundup in Utah. After she died, BLM wranglers used chains to drag her away. The shocking image of a federally protected animal being treated like trash sparked immediate public outcry.

Although the BLM is charged with protecting our nation’s iconic wild horses under the landmark Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, Acting Director William Perry Pendley recently characterized these animals as an “existential threat” to our public lands. Yet he continues to downplay the impacts of livestock grazing, oil or gas drilling, mineral extraction and other consumptive uses.

That should come as no surprise since Pendley, a critic of the science behind climate change, previously led a legal foundation that represented these same extractive industries against the federal government.

In Nevada, for example, 43 million BLM acres — most of any state — are authorized for grazing, yet about 47,000 wild horses are restricted to under 16 million acres. Meanwhile, conservative estimates based on agricultural data indicate that livestock in Nevada outnumber wild horses 18 to 1. Even if Pendley and the BLM truly believe that wild horses, not cattle, are wreaking havoc across the West, the agency should be proactive in implementing safe, effective and humane fertility control options to manage these herds.

The Porcine Zona Pellucida vaccine (commonly known as PZP) has been used successfully for decades on wild horses and enjoys broad support among animal protection groups and in the scientific community as the best option available. By the BLM’s own admission, PZP has no adverse effects on herds, is at least 90% effective, and can reduce or even eliminate the need for roundups.

In 2013, the National Academy of Sciences reviewed the BLM’s management of wild horses and unequivocally recommended PZP for large-scale use. To date, however, the BLM has been reluctant to embrace fertility control, claiming that the PZP vaccine is only a temporary fix on smaller herds and would exhaust staff resources. As Titus noted when speaking in favor of the House amendment, the agency has never spent more than 4% of its budget on fertility control.

Instead, the BLM spends an estimated $48,000 for lifetime care of a single wild horse. Volunteers with the American Wild Horse Campaign, by contrast, darted nearly 1,000 mares with the PZP vaccine in the Virginia Range of Northern Nevada. Their total budget: $182,000.

The BLM keeps repeating the same mistakes but expecting a different outcome. Fortunately, House lawmakers have decided to intervene. It is still unclear whether the Senate will follow. But given the inexplicable stagnation in the BLM’s management plan, the House vote is a reason to be optimistic that America’s wild horses across the rural West might one day regain the respect and freedom they deserve.

Joanna Grossman, Ph.D., is equine program manager for the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C.

Originally posted by Las Vegas Sun