BLM sets aggressive course for herd reduction

/ In The News, News
Wild horse at the Onaqui Herd Management Area in Utah. RTF file photo.

A note from Return to Freedom: Unless proven, safe and humane fertility control is scaled-up alongside the roundups that the Bureau of Land Management is pursuing, we will never reach the point where humane, on-range management via fertility control is the go-to. 

For Fiscal Year 2020, Congress approved a funding package that included an additional $21 million investment for a multi-pronged wild horse management strategy built upon the use of fertility control – a first step toward finally ending the BLM’s decades-old inhumane, costly and unsustainable practice of capture and warehousing of wild horses and burros. 

Lawmakers refused to release that additional funding until after the BLM produced a wild horse management report, which the agency did in May. Unfortunately, BLM’s report was unclear and inconsistent even on fundamental issues.

House Appropriators have made it clear they are still waiting for a well-defined action plan: “it is … clear that a well-defined action plan for actually implementing this strategy is still be presented,” the Committee wrote in its report language. 

We join Appropriators in demanding a detailed plan from the agency for the implementation of a robust, holistic program where fertility control is the valuable and necessary portion of management that multiple analyses have shown it to be. 

RTF strongly objects to the administration’s gutting of the National Environmental Policy Act. These actions raise significant concerns about their effect on federally protected wild horses and burros and the public lands upon which they depend.

RTF will continue to advocate for: consistent funding support for, and the implementation of, safe, proven and humane fertility control vaccines, like the longer-lasting PZP-22 as well as PZP, public-private partnerships like darting programs and herd monitoring, and rangeland restoration while strongly opposing surgical sterilization of wild mares and burro jennies and lethal tools like euthanasia or unrestricted sale (to slaughter).

TAKE ACTION: Please join RTF in continuing to urge lawmakers in the House and Senate to press BLM to immediately begin implementation of fertility control.

As published by E&E News

The Bureau of Land Management is executing parts of an aggressive strategy submitted to Congress last spring designed to reduce growing wild horse and burro herds, even though lawmakers have questioned BLM’s strategy and its ability to implement it.

BLM is ramping up wild horse and burro roundups to reduce populations on overcrowded federal herd management areas, said Casey Hammond, Interior’s principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management.

The bureau is also developing a new rule updating regulations governing wild horse and burro management to “streamline” National Environmental Policy Act requirements that can slow roundups and other strategies, Hammond told E&E News this week.

The idea is to “prove this concept” of using increased gathers to reduce herds in a few especially overcrowded herd management areas, then “address as aggressively” the overcrowding with fertility vaccines and other controls to keep populations at sustainable levels, he said.

“From that perspective, we have started out implementing plans,” he said.

The effort corresponds with the bureau’s own estimates released in March showing there are now 95,000 wild horses and burros on federal rangelands — nearly four times sustainable levels and the most BLM has ever estimated in a single year.

Hammond toured federal herd management areas and holding pens and corrals this week in Nevada, which has more than 50,000 wild horses and burros on federal rangelands — by far the most of any state.

There, much of the parched landscape does not contain enough forage to sustain the animals.

“I was out yesterday with [BLM] district folks, and you pass by areas where it was just grass down to the dirt with no forage left,” Hammond said following a tour of BLM’s Palomino Valley Wild Horse and Burro Center just outside Reno, Nev.

Water is scarce, too, with small underground springs separated by miles serving as the only source of drinking water for hundreds of wild horses and burros and other animals.

BLM in the last month alone has conducted at least four emergency gathers in Nevada, rounding up more than 300 wild horses “due to lack of water” and the subsequent “declining health” of the animals.

This, Hammond said, is “what an inhumane situation really looks like.”

“We have no time to mess around; we have to address the situation aggressively, now, and that’s really the path that we’re on,” Hammond added.

But there are plenty of critics, and not just among the wild horse and animal rights groups that have long accused BLM of mismanaging the situation, allowing overgrazing of cattle and sheep as well as energy development to deplete scarce resources.

House appropriators were not very impressed with the strategy BLM submitted in May to Congress, which asked for the report. Congress even withheld $21 million in fiscal 2020 funding for the Wild Horse and Burro Program until BLM finally submitted the report months late. (Read RTF’s response to BLM’s report)

BLM is funding current efforts to implement the plan using that $21 million, Hammond said.

The strategy presented to Congress calls for permanently removing as many as 20,000 wild horses and burros off federal rangelands annually, with an additional 9,000 a year treated with vaccines and returned to the range.

The plan would cost about $900 million to implement in the first five years but would result in cutting populations to the so-called appropriate management level of 26,715 animals in the next two decades.

The House Appropriations Committee, in a report accompanying its $36.75 billion fiscal 2021 Interior-Environment spending bill, did not appear impressed with the strategy.

The panel wrote that it is “clear that a well-defined action plan for actually implementing this strategy is still to be presented.”

Wild horse advocates say ramping up gathers, which they label as cruel, isn’t the answer.

The American Wild Horse Campaign, in an emailed statement to E&E News, accused BLM of “trying to do an end-run around Congress by quickly implementing its mass removal plan before Congress can rein in the agency.”

The group said part of the blame falls on Congress. “It was a big mistake to hand the BLM $21 million in additional funding for its Wild Horse and Burro Program without any meaningful guardrails or restrictions on how the new money could be used.”

The key, the group said, is “humane fertility control,” specifically the expanded use of porcine zona pellucida, or PZP, which renders mares infertile for roughly a year.

A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers successfully included an amendment in the House version of the Interior-Environment spending bill that would direct BLM to spend at least $11 million of its budget on PZP.

“Congress needs to intervene if BLM is going to be prevented from throwing away more tax dollars on a disastrous, fiscally reckless and inhumane management approach,” the American Wild Horse Campaign statement said.

Streamlining NEPA

Hammond said he disagrees with that strategy. “In my opinion, the gathers are the most critical component of this. And then the next step being the fertility controls,” he said.

On that note, BLM in the past four weeks has announced or completed four wild horse gathers in Arizona, Idaho, Nevada and Utah to remove more than 3,500 wild horses from overcrowded herd management areas.

BLM has also moved to address the issue of finding additional space to house the animals while they await adoption.

BLM last week sent out a request for landowners in the eastern U.S. who have “the interest and ability to provide corral space for excess animals.” The horses would be those gathered off rangelands in the West that will be offered for adoption to landowners in Eastern states.

The bureau is also working on a proposed rule that Hammond said would update wild horse and burro management regulations for the first time since 1986.

The rule would, among other things, attempt to streamline National Environmental Policy Act requirements involving the roundup of animals from the range, as well as the process to contract with ranchers to house wild horses on private pastureland.

“There’s a lot of opportunity there to move on things, and hopefully be able to streamline some of the NEPA processes that they have,” Hammond said. “I think that you’re aware that they have to do NEPA on just new pasturelands, or just on importing horses, like gathers. A lot of that can be very redundant.”

The proposed rule was included in the Trump administration’s regulatory agenda unveiled in June. (Read RTF’s response)

It’s not clear when the rule will be unveiled to the public.

“All I can really tell you is that it’s still being developed by the BLM program folks and our solicitor’s office,” he said.

In the meantime, “our main focus has been trying to get the funds, and the corral space and the pasture space to gather the animals, so we can have that opportunity” to incorporate effective fertility control in an effort to get populations to sustainable levels and keep them there, he said.

The alternative, he said, is that wild horses and burros start to die from lack of water and forage.

“That’s something that the president’s not going to tolerate and the [Interior] secretary’s not going to tolerate,” he said. “So we have to address this.”