As drought deepens, BLM says roundups can save wild horses

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Wild horses on the Onaqui Mountains Herd Management Area. Photo by Meg Frederick.

As published by E&E News

Animal welfare advocates consider the kind of large-scale roundups of wild horses and burros the Bureau of Land Management has ramped up in the past year cruel and unnecessary, sometimes resulting in the frightened animals suffering serious injuries and, on occasion, dying.

But recent history shows these roundups may be the best short-term strategy to reduce wild horse and burro populations to manageable levels.

Some federal land managers and wild horse experts further argue there has not been a more urgent time in recent memory to cut herd sizes, with a near-historic drought scorching the West and raising fears that large numbers of animals could die as a result.

BLM’s latest rangewide wild horse and burro population estimate, posted online last week, shows that populations dropped last year — the first year-to-year drop in herd sizes in nearly a decade.

Some observers credit the aggressive roundup strategy BLM began in late 2019 — outlined in detail in a May 2020 report to Congress — as the main reason for the reduction.

Among them is Casey Hammond, former Interior Department principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management during the Trump administration, and one of the architects of the plan submitted to Congress.

“After at least eight years of ignoring the issue, we inherited exploding populations with devastating impacts,” Hammond told E&E News in an emailed statement. “While doing nothing works politically, it is also cruel, and that was not acceptable to us. Only with aggressive roundups and increased adoptions, do we get to a place where our commitment to advanced fertility treatments pays off.”

“We thought creatively, made the tough decisions, and absorbed the inevitable criticism in our administration,” he added.

Some wild horse advocates argue that the animals occupy a small portion of the range and should be left alone. They say other uses of federal lands — notably livestock and sheep grazing — instead should be curtailed. Others argue BLM should stop the large-scale roundups, and instead expand the use of darting wild horses and burros with a birth-control vaccine.

But supporters of the ambitious roundup strategy look back on fairly recent history to bolster their point.

The George W. Bush administration implemented roughly the same blueprint, with a few notable exceptions, in the mid-2000s. It focused on an aggressive gather schedule that, while controversial at the time, ultimately cut rangewide wild horse and burro herd sizes by about 20,000 animals.

Consider that by the fall of 2000, near the end of President Clinton’s second term, the total on-range population of wild horses and burros had ballooned to 48,624, according to BLM historical rangeland data. That’s well above the federally estimated appropriate management level of 26,715 animals that federal land managers consider the “appropriate management level” for populations.

But by February 2007, during Bush’s second term, the total on-range population of wild horses and burros had dropped to 28,563 — within reach of the number of animals BLM says the rangelands can support without causing damage to vegetation, soils and other resources.

So why did wild horse and burro populations reach a record 95,114 animals by 2020?

One reason, observers say, is that the Bush administration made a critical error by not combining the roundups with a comprehensive sterilization or vaccination effort that included fertility controls for mares still on the range. With no significant natural predators, the population can easily double every four years.

In addition, the Obama administration, for the most part, pulled back on roundups.

The Bush administration removed on average more than 9,900 wild horses and burros annually during eight years in office. During that same length of time under President Obama, that number dropped to 5,800 wild horse and burro removals annually, the data shows.

When the roundups slowed, and with no widespread commitment to fertility control, the wild horse and burro population started to grow.

By early 2009, as Obama was settling into office, the total on-range population of wild horses and burros had reached 36,940 animals, according to BLM data.

Consider that in fiscal 2014, which ran through Sept. 30, 2015, BLM removed only 1,857 wild horses and burros total from federal rangelands. By March 2015, wild horse and burro populations had climbed to 58,150 animals.

By March 2017, the Trump administration had inherited a rangewide population count of 72,674 animals, the data shows.

President Trump increased roundups to an average of 8,600 wild horses and burros annually between fiscal 2017 and 2020. But populations continued to climb until last year, when about 11,000 animals were removed.

The Biden administration plans to follow the plan developed by BLM and submitted last year to Congress. It calls for permanently removing 20,000 animals annually, and rounding up an additional 9,000 animals a year and treating them with “some form of long-term temporary or permanent fertility control” before returning them to the range (E&E News PM, May 12, 2020).

BLM estimated that doing so could bring the total on-range population of wild horses and burros down to the appropriate management level in about 15 years. The plan also calls for increased application of fertility controls, as well as more research into longer-lasting fertility vaccines and permanent sterilization techniques.

It plans to round up and remove about 11,000 wild horses and burros from federal rangelands this fiscal budget cycle ending Sept. 30, and ramp up those efforts to remove about 20,000 animals in fiscal 2022.

President Biden’s fiscal 2022 budget proposal follows the funding outline in the plan, requesting $152 million for the program. A House Interior-EPA funding bill would ramp that up to $162 million, with a mandate that $11 million be spent on applying fertility control vaccines to mares in the field.

But more rounded-up horses and burros means more animals in off-range holding pens and corrals, and more pressure on BLM to adopt the estimated 50,000 or so animals already awaiting adoption. BLM spends the majority of its Wild Horse and Burro Program budget caring for these animals.

BLM did not respond to repeated requests to comment for this story.

BLM’s popular adoption incentive program, which has successfully adopted 7,500 or so wild horses and burros since late 2019, has been rocked by allegations that some animals were later sold at auctions, and that some could have been sent to slaughter.

Nada Culver, BLM’s deputy director of policy and programs, told the bureau’s National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board last week that BLM is conducting an internal investigation to determine whether any animals adopted through the program were later sold to slaughter.

Wild horse advocacy groups, however, aren’t waiting on BLM.

The American Wild Horse Campaign and several other groups and individuals today announced they filed a lawsuit against the Interior Department and BLM claiming the pay-to-adopt program violates several federal laws.

Friends of Animals last month filed a similar federal lawsuit against Interior and BLM in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.

The National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board debated at last week’s hearing whether to approve a recommendation urging BLM to suspend the adoption program pending the results of the internal investigation, at the suggestion of Celeste Carlisle, the board chair who serves as biologist and conservation science program coordinator for Return to Freedom.

“I think we need to show that the board is concerned and BLM is concerned” about the allegations, Carlisle said.

The board did not support such a recommendation but did approve a formal “statement” supporting the internal investigation “and subsequent outcome of BLM’s efforts to properly ensure the welfare of adopted horses and burros to the best of their ability/to closure.”

Meanwhile, the situation for wild horses and burros on federal rangelands is getting dire.

BLM and Forest Service officials, as well as members of the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, spent much of a two-day hearing last week discussing the near-historic drought in Western states and its impacts on the animals.

Carlisle told the panel last week that BLM and the Forest Service need to start planning for the possibility that the drought continues for years, and eventually renders the landscape incapable of housing a thriving population of equids.

“For the long-term viability of the federally protected wild horse and burro, we better be thinking about things like this and acting on them,” Carlisle said. “I care more for that habitat to support these horses into perpetuity, and right now it’s not going to. So I am making an impassioned plea to my compatriots out there that this is make or break right now.”

James French, a Nevada government official who represents natural resources management issues on the board, said the consequences could be mass die-offs this year. And he and other board members issued strong support for continued roundups until populations get down to manageable levels.

“We’re going to remove horses from the range whether they’re alive or whether they are not,” French said during last week’s board hearing. “It really is that simple this year.”

The advisory board’s nine members unanimously approved a recommendation that BLM “immediately develop and implement as necessary an emergency action plan.” That plan would include preparations “to gather and house an unprecedented number of equids” due to the “current and likely continuation of the unprecedented drought situation in much of the Intermountain West and Desert Southwest,” according to the recommendation.

“I for one do not want to be out there dragging dead bodies into a pit because we did not have a plan in place to deal with these unprecedented conditions that we are likely to have sometime in the future,” said Barry Perryman, a board member and rangeland ecologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, during the hearing.

But large-scale round-ups, particularly using helicopters to frighten wild horses into holding pens, are controversial. During the advisory board hearing, numerous residents and advocacy group representatives bemoaned the practice, as some of the animals are seriously injured or killed.

The advisory board last week recommended that BLM develop a “comprehensive and standardized ‘gather preparation and evaluation’ brochure and presentation” that would be “shared with the public observing gathers.”

The brochure would include an explanation of what “is normal behavior/physiology for horses and burros” during a gather, as well as an explanation that “the end result” of the gather “could be” horse mortality. BLM must also give members of the public watching each gather a “debriefing” outlining the results, and details on whether any animals were injured or died.

And they encouraged BLM to combine roundups with fertility controls.

So far, fertility control applications have lagged behind.

While BLM rounded up and removed nearly 11,000 wild horses and burros in the last fiscal budget cycle, only 758 animals were treated with some form of “population growth suppression,” according to BLM data the bureau shared with the advisory board last week.

“We would like to see more fertility control application on the range,” said Paul Griffin, a BLM research coordinator, during last week’s hearing.

But first things first, Griffin added. “There is still an imperative to reduce the number of animals on the range due to overcrowding,” he said.