Statement from Return to Freedom:
“The agency does not currently have the infrastructure in place to effectively implement a sustainable fertility control program across the West, yet can remove tens of thousands of wild horses at the drop of a hat. Our hope is that the BLM will now direct funds to adequately staff the Wild Horse and Burro Program, increase range restoration projectsand utilize meaningful amounts of proven safe and humane fertility control to begin the shift away from roundups and the deadly capture, removal and warehousing of our wild horses and burros.
The Bureau of Land Management is taking the first steps to pivot from its recent focus on removing wild horses and burros from rangelands.
The agency announced late yesterday that it is formally seeking contractors capable of rounding up thousands of wild horses each year, treating them with temporary birth-control vaccines and then releasing them back onto federal herd management areas.
BLM estimates it could have up to $20 million in congressional funding over the next five years to implement such a strategy, though the bureau did not indicate how many animals would be treated each year.
In a recently released fiscal 2023 budget justification document, BLM said it planned to treat a record 2,650 animals with fertility control treatments and permanent sterilization next year.
“Managing healthy wild horse and burro herds on healthy public lands is a top priority for the Bureau of Land Management,” BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said. “The BLM is laser-focused on finding common-sense solutions to protect our public lands and the species that depend on them, especially as we face growing effects of drought and climate change.”
The solicitation for contractors is open until June 9. It falls in line with BLM’s fiscal 2023 budget justification document, in which the bureau reported that it planned to significantly scale back the number of wild horses and burros rounded up and permanently removed in the next budget cycle that starts Oct. 1.
BLM estimated in the document that it will round up about 10,000 wild horses and burros, or half the roughly 20,000-22,000 animals the bureau is currently working to remove this year.
The roundups have proven successful at reducing record herd sizes. Range-wide, populations have declined by 13 percent, or an estimated 12,730 wild horses and burros, since March 1, 2020, when the population had reached a record 95,114 animals. The current range-wide population count is an estimated 82,384.
The reason for the shift away from roundups is the growing cost of caring for and holding the 58,130 wild horses in off-range pens and corrals and pastures as of April, BLM indicated in an emailed statement this week to E&E News.
The fiscal 2023 budget justification also noted that BLM spent $77.6 million in the fiscal 2021 budget cycle to care for and feed the more than 13,000 wild horses and burros rounded up that budget cycle, and tens of thousands of other previously corralled animals — about 64 percent of the total Wild Horse and Burro Program budget.
BLM was able to adopt into private care a record 7,369 animals in fiscal 2021, and it plans to continue that focus. But that still leaves tens of thousands of animals in holding pens and corrals for the foreseeable future.
The shift toward birth-control vaccines comes as BLM has warned that a warming climate and the ongoing drought in much of the West have placed wild horses and burros on parched rangelands in danger, as too many horses leave too little forage and water.
The current estimate of 82,384 wild horses and burros roaming 27 million acres of herd management areas in 10 Western states is three times the maximum number of 26,785 animals that BLM says federal rangelands can sustain without causing damage to vegetation, soils and other resources.
“It’s imperative that we do all that we can to protect these national icons and other wildlife from the effects of drought and overpopulation,” Stone-Manning said in her statement.
She added that BLM’s top goal “is to ensure these animals can continue to survive and thrive on America’s public lands for generations to come.”
BLM has been under pressure from wild horse advocates to reduce the roundups, arguing they are cruel, as frightened animals herded into corrals by helicopter can be fatally injured, and foals can be trampled to death. These advocates also have argued that fertility control treatments can effectively control herd sizes.
The scrutiny has intensified recently, as an equine influenza virus outbreak at a Colorado holding facility where rounded-up animals are waiting to be adopted has resulted in the deaths of at least 140 horses since the outbreak began April 23, BLM says.