A humane solution exists for the West’s growing mustang population

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Wild horses at RTF’s San Luis Obispo, Calif., satellite sanctuary. Photo by Norma Fries.

Return to Freedom appreciates that Dave Philipps of The New York Times laid out the significant challenges of creating a sustainable future for America’s wild horses and burros after decades of mismanagement. RTF has long focused on solutions to allow naturally selected family bands to live freely at our sanctuary and on their rightful rangelands.

Members of Congress have said that they will not tolerate the skyrocketing cost of the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Program. They asked for a humane, bipartisan solution, making clear starting in 2017 that the push for allowing BLM to kill the horses in government holding facilities or sell them without restriction (to slaughter) was gaining traction in the Capitol as never before.

Conservation efforts globally are moving towards collaboration and the sharing of expertise. Critical to the success of this emerging culture are the coalescing of groups with divergent points of views, backgrounds and skillsets and, therefore, different agendas. Such relationships are vital to finding solutions as the effects of climate change accelerate, imperiling habitats and the species that rely on them, including wild horses.

RTF and two of the nation’s largest animal-welfare organizations worked with scientists and sat down with other rangeland stakeholders for often difficult discussions. We found enough common ground to put forth a workable alternative to the BLM’s decades-old practice of capture, removal and warehousing of federally protected wild horses and burros.

Together, we offered a framework to begin digging into the challenges of managing wild horses and burros using the best available science while excluding lethal outcomes.

Congress embraced the idea. It appropriated $21 million in additional funds to BLM for Fiscal Year 2020, but only if the agency put forward a detailed plan for its use. So far, BLM has not.

With more than 88,000 wild horses and burros on our public lands at last estimate, the population could potentially grow to more than 234,000 in 10 years if BLM continues its current approach (capturing and removing about 12,000 per year with no other form of management).

RTF’s goal was to give Congress a way to avoid allowing BLM to sell without restriction (to slaughter) or euthanize tens of thousands of animals living in government corrals or on leased pastures. RTF also sought to lay out what it would take for fertility control to play a key role in phasing out almost 50 years of dangerous, controversial roundups and the off-range storage of wild horses while saving taxpayers money in the foreseeable future. 

Before going further, though, it’s necessary to address two areas in the Times story sure to be burrs under the saddle of wild horse advocates:

First, any conversation about wild horses is often made difficult by the suspicions that BLM’s on-range population estimates are inflated.

RTF understands the complexities of accurate aerial counts, but recognizes that BLM’s estimates are currently the only figure any of us have to work with at this time.

Second, the long-running battle over the multiple uses of public lands is very real. Under the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, BLM is tasked with balancing the use of rangelands not just by wild horses and other wildlife, but the grazing of private cattle, energy projects, public recreation and more.

While some advocates are reluctant to admit the impact horses and burros have on the range, for fear it hands BLM or others ammunition, every use affects public lands in some way. Horses and burros forage on a wide range of grasses, forbs and brush, but rapidly changing habitats need to be monitored and assessed for the health and vitality of other plant and animal species, on a Herd Management Area by Herd Management Area basis.

Unfortunately, when Herd Management Areas were created, wild horses and burros were not given an equitable share of resources. RTF believes their needs should be weighted equally and forage allocations increased in areas legally designated for wild horses to roam freely.

The status quo is moving herds and habitats toward disaster. We can no longer oversimplify this issue and pit special use against special use. The very real threat of mass euthanasia or sale to slaughter, made more desperate by intensified environmental resource degradation and alteration due to a changing climate, will be on everyone’s hands if we cannot work together for the good of America’s wild horses and public lands. 

In the absence of natural predation, slowing the reproduction of wild horses and burros is the only non-lethal way to keep them out of harm’s way. Yet BLM has invested less than 4% of its annual program budget on safe, proven and humane fertility control that could have reduced wild horse and burro management costs over time. RTF has for 22 years advocated for the non-hormonal vaccine that we use with great success at our own sanctuary, and that volunteer advocates have increasingly utilized on ranges where herds are tractable.

At this time, a combination of approaches is needed to stabilize BLM’s program. The National Academy of Sciences made that clear in its 2013 report, as did population modeling that underpinned the joint proposal the stakeholders gave to Congress in 2019.

We contended that instead of solely removing horses from the range, fertility control must be aggressively scaled up, with a percentage of mares treated and released alongside roundups. This would lead to the numbers of horses needing to be gathered declining as the numbers of horses treated with fertility control increases. We also called for relocating captive horses from corrals to less expensive and more natural pastures.

For this alternative to succeed, Congress must provide BLM with a solid, continuing budget and vigilant oversight. We must work together to ensure that the additional funds are used to implement existing proven, safe and effective fertility control, slowing reproduction humanely until longer-acting vaccines are available, forge increased public-private partnerships, and restore damaged rangelands.

Despite political and climatic challenges, wild horses and burros can be managed on the range in a humane and sustainable way, allowing them to roam in a way that reflects the spirit of the 1971 Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act and the wishes of the American people.

Donate to RTF’s Wild Horse Defense Fund, which fuels our lobbying, grassroots advocacy and selective litigation.