The Biden administration is signaling that it won’t follow the Trump-era approach to managing wild horses and burros, ditching plans approved last year to test a controversial sterilization method on wild mares in Utah.
The Interior Department and attorneys at the Department of Justice yesterday notified several wild horse advocacy groups, including the American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC) and Return to Freedom, of the decision not to test the “ovariectomy via colpotomy” technique, which involves removing wild mares’ ovaries.
The procedure, which wild horse advocates call “barbaric,” has been proposed for testing several times over the past decade, including in 2016 by the Obama administration. Each time, it has been dropped after legal challenges.
Return to Freedom and AWHC in December challenged the latest plan in separate federal lawsuits. The Bureau of Land Management’s plan called for rounding up as many as 590 wild horses from the Confusion Herd Management Area (HMA) in Utah and testing the technique on a select number of mares.
BLM representatives did not provide a comment or answer questions concerning the sterilization tests at the Confusion HMA.
But AWHC said DOJ attorneys notified its legal representatives yesterday by email of BLM’s decision to drop the tests. Neda DeMayo, Return to Freedom’s president and founder, said her group was also notified.
Grace Kuhn, a spokesperson for AWHC, said the Interior Department has asked for a 60-day pause on the litigation “to finalize its position with the court.”
A third advocacy group, Wild Horse Education, had administratively challenged the Confusion HMA plan in October to the Interior Board of Land Appeals. Laura Leigh, the president of Wild Horse Education, said BLM informed the group yesterday that the sterilization tests were off after the bureau conducted an internal review that concluded the procedure does not align with the Biden administration’s policies.
Sterilization was part of the Trump administration’s aggressive herd reduction strategy outlined in a report submitted to Congress last year.
That strategy, which BLM began to fully implement last year, called for permanently removing 20,000 animals annually, and rounding up an additional 9,000 horses a year and treating them with “some form of long-term temporary or permanent fertility control” before returning them to the range.
Researching sterilization techniques was a major component of the plan sent to Congress, which stated that permanently “sterilizing females is the most effective growth suppression method; one treatment results in a lifetime of infertility.”
Congress essentially endorsed the strategy last year by allocating $115.7 million to BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program — just a shade under the $116 million that former President Trump requested in his fiscal 2021 budget proposal.
The Biden administration’s BLM has not given much indication publicly about how it plans to manage growing populations of wild horses and burros on federal rangelands.
The decision to ditch the Trump-era sterilization tests “bodes well for humane and science-based decision making under the leadership of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland,” Brieanah Schwartz, AWHC’s director of policy and litigation, said in a statement.
But Interior Secretary Deb Haaland — while still a Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico — joined 57 other lawmakers last fall in signing a letter to her predecessor, former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, opposing BLM’s plans to test the “inhumane” surgical sterilization technique on wild mares.
DeMayo indicated in a statement that she agrees.
“We hope that this means the new administration will turn the corner towards a more humane plan for wild horses with a focus on proven, safe and humane fertility control methods for which [the group] has been lobbying for 20 years,” DeMayo said. “We commend the BLM and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland for this wise decision.”
But the problem of how best to reduce the wild horse and burro population to manageable levels remains.
BLM’s latest rangewide wild horse and burro population estimate, released in March 2020, reported that there are more than 95,000 animals on federal rangelands — close to four times the number that the lands can sustain without causing damage to vegetation, soils and other resources.
Nada Culver, BLM’s deputy director of policy and programs, who is temporarily leading the bureau, told employees at a town hall meeting last week that a top priority is addressing “exploding populations of horses.”
Culver said the excess wild horses and burros are “degrading the range and threatening their own survival” by exhausting dwindling forage and water supplies.
Along those lines, BLM late yesterday invited state and local governments, Native American tribes, federal agencies and nonprofit groups to submit project proposals they could partner on to improve rangelands and reduce wild horse and burro populations.
BLM said in the announcement that projects chosen to be funded with grant money could include helping place “excess animals into private care,” darting mares on the range with fertility control vaccines, or “building range improvements.”
Project proposals must be submitted by May 28.
“The BLM has a long history of partnering with national and community-based organizations to help manage and protect wild horses and burros,” Culver said in a statement.
“I encourage all those who are interested in supporting the well-being of America’s Living Legends to submit a proposal,” she added.