BLM offers long-delayed plan to cut herds

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

Click to read RTF’s full press release in response to the Bureau of Land Management Report.

As published by E&E News

The Trump administration is proposing an aggressive plan that would permanently remove as many as 20,000 wild horses and burros off federal rangelands annually, costing as much as $900 million in the first five years, according to a long-delayed report to Congress.

The 33-page report lays out a three-phase plan that would allow the Bureau of Land Management to reduce the roughly 90,000 wild horses and burros trampling federal rangelands across the West to sustainable levels in 15 to 18 years.

It does not include any consideration of euthanizing animals or selling rounded-up animals without ensuring they are not transferred to foreign slaughterhouses, as did a previous BLM report submitted to Congress in 2018.

Instead, the new report — quietly submitted to Congress on Friday — proposes not only to capture and permanently remove roughly 20,000 animals a year, but also to round up an additional 9,000 animals a year. BLM would treat those animals with “some form of long-term temporary or permanent fertility control” before returning them to the range.

BLM, in an emailed statement, said the report “outlines a comprehensive, non-lethal population control strategy to address chronic overpopulation of wild horses and burros and their impact to BLM-managed public lands.”

The bureau, the statement added, wants to work “with Congress, its partners, state and local governments, and the private sector to ensure healthy wild horses and burros continue to thrive on healthy public rangelands for future generations to enjoy.”

It’s not clear what Congress will think of the plan — or the hefty price tag. A spokesman for the House Natural Resources Committee said the panel is still reviewing the document.

BLM under the plan would also continue research “into improving long-term fertility control treatments and humane permanent sterilization (with a particular emphasis on modern chemical sterilization methods).”

All this could reduce growing populations of wild horses and burros to the appropriate management level (AML) of about 26,715 animals in the next two decades, according to the report, titled “An Analysis of Achieving a Sustainable Wild Horse and Burro Program.”

The cost of the strategy — starting at $116 million the first year and increasing to $238 million by the fifth year — comes amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has crippled the nation’s economy.

But the alternative of maintaining the status quo could be far worse, the report concludes.

“If nothing were done to reduce the annual growth rate of these herds, by 2040, the BLM estimates the on-range populations of wild horses and burros could increase to over 2.8 million,” the report says. Such a density of animals would lead “to catastrophic harm to the land, to other species, and to wild horses and burros themselves.”

BLM is roughly nine months late submitting the report to congressional appropriators. They requested last year that BLM prepare the report.

BLM acting chief William Perry Pendley told reporters last fall that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was partly responsible for the delay.

“I will tell you the secretary was unhappy with previous documents that we prepared on this subject, and he gave strict orders that we’re to prepare a thoughtful and well-reasoned document to deliver to the Hill; anything less we’re not going to send up there,” Pendley said.

The delay sparked seven Democratic members of Congress to press Bernhardt in a letter to finalize and submit the report.

It also prompted appropriators to insert language into the fiscal 2020 funding bill withholding $21 million for BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program until 60 days after the report is submitted.

Few would argue that aggressive action isn’t needed.

E&E News last summer visited herd management areas in Nevada, which is home to more than 47,000 wild horses and burros — by far the most of any state. There, horses observed in the Pancake Herd Management Area in BLM’s Ely District struggled to find forage and drinking water.

What’s more, BLM officials in Nevada seemed flustered by the growing problem and warned that it will get worse without aggressive action to cull herds, such as large-scale removals of tens of thousands of animals.

The latest report follows a similar strategy submitted to Congress in 2018 that hinted that BLM needed the flexibility to sell or transfer animals without limitation and to euthanize some animals.

While the latest version considers only nonlethal strategies, its insistence on ramping up wild horse and burro roundups and continuing research into permanent sterilization did not please most wild horse and animal welfare groups.

The answer to reducing herd sizes, those groups say, is ramping up fertility controls, along with smaller-scale roundups and removals that ensure the animals are protected and population levels are reduced.

“BLM is missing an opportunity to seize the momentum that is building toward sustainable solutions that immediately ramp up fertility control,” Neda DeMayo, president of Return to Freedom, said in a statement.

“Congress demanded a specific analysis and a real, long-term plan, yet the document that BLM produced is vague, frequently contradicts itself, and threatens to produce results that are the same or worse for federally protected wild horses and burros,” she added.

But BLM disagrees. The report concludes that using only “short-term fertility control vaccines at any scale” will not result in a significant reduction in herd sizes.

“The analysis suggests the most effective way to achieve [appropriate management levels] West-wide is to annually remove a large number of animals permanently from the range,” the report says, “especially since a high percentage of mares captured are pregnant at the time of capture.”

“The number of animals annually removed is the dominant variable controlling total program costs,” it adds. “Therefore, the annual projected removals are critical to containing program costs and achieving AML.”

Once the herds’ sizes are reduced to an appropriate management level, the report says, “fertility control would become a relatively more cost-effective strategy, with permanent sterilization options being more cost-effective in the long run than temporary sterilization which must be repeated.”