BLM steps toward fertility control encouraging, but devil remains in details

Captured wild horses at the Palomino Valley Wild Horse and Burro Center. BLM film photo.

Return to Freedom said Thursday that the Bureau of Land Management taking steps to treat more wild horses and burros with fertility control is encouraging.

RTF has worked since 1999 for policy changes to keep wild horses and burros on the range by managing population growth with proven, safe and humane fertility control as an alternative to costly and devastating roundups and government off-range holding pens.

The BLM announced this week that it is seeking contractors to treat and release wild horses and burros and that it anticipated making “up to” $20 million available over the next 1-5 years for that purpose.

Work by RTF with other animal-welfare groups and rangeland stakeholders has resulted in broader acceptance of the need for fertility control in wild horse and burro management and, for the first time, Congress calling for fertility control use and providing funding for it.

So far, the BLM has continued to react to population numbers by aggressively removing wild horses from the range, but RTF continues to press the agency to pivot to fertility control.

“In our conversations with new BLM leadership, we feel cautiously optimistic that their focus and funding will shift to minimally intrusive on the range management,” said Neda DeMayo, president of RTF. “Of course, we have to see how it all plays out, but we hope that this signals a new culture for the agency’s Wild Horse and Burro Program.”

DeMayo continued, “The agency does not currently have the infrastructure in place to effectively implement a sustainable fertility control program across the West, yet it can remove tens of thousands of wild horses at the drop of a hat. Our hope is that the BLM will now direct funds toward adequately staffing the Wild Horse and Burro Program, increasing range restoration projects, and utilizing 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.”

BLM’s Fiscal Year 2023 budget justification calls for removing 10,000 wild horses and burros from the range while treating or permanently sterilizing 2,650 animals.

RTF strongly opposes the permanent surgical sterilization of wild mares and burro jennies. The BLM has previously pursued a rare procedure that removes the ovaries by crushing and pulling them out with a looped-chain medical instrument. The procedure is painful, potentially life-threatening and costly. As recently as last year, BLM dropped a sterilization plan in response to a lawsuit by RTF.

RTF also opposes gelding stallions and returning them to the range. Gelding changes the behavior of wild, free-roaming stallions and would require sterilizing all the stallions in a herd to slow population growth. While gelding is more common and less dangerous than sterilizing mares, it is not without health risks.

Fertility control is a cost-effective, readily available and humane alternative to capturing and warehousing wild horses as well as to costly, risky sterilization methods.

The fertility control vaccine PZP has been shown to be effective and safe. A non-hormonal vaccine, it has minimal effects on behavior and has proven successful across species, including on the range and at RTF’s American Wild Horse Sanctuary, among other projects, for decades.

The BLM’s most recent range-wide population estimate for wild horses and burros is 82,384 across Herd Management Areas in 10 Western states. The agency plans to remove a record 19,000 from the range during the current fiscal year while treating only 2,500 with fertility control – a plan that RTF has called “excessive and irresponsible, not least because BLM is not equipped or prepared to care for another 19,000 captive wild horses and burros.”

RTF has called upon the agency to focus on immediate, robust fertility control implementation and on relocating captured wild horses and burros living in corrals to more natural and cost-effective pastures.

In Fiscal Year 2021, the BLM spent about $77 million on the capturing and warehousing of wild horses and burros, about 68 percent of its Wild Horse and Burro Program’s budget. It has never spent as much as 4 percent of the program’s budget on fertility control.

As of February, the BLM was warehousing 21,784 wild horses and burros in corrals at a daily cost to taxpayers of $6.19 per horse. By comparison, it costs taxpayers $2.17 per horse, per day, to care for an additional 38,827 wild horses on leased or government pastureland.

Take Action: Support safe, proven and humane fertility control that can end wild horse removals