Congress demanded a coherent wild horse management plan; BLM hasn’t produced one

Photo taken at RTF’s American Wild Horse Sanctuary by Lori Sortino

Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation today expressed disappointment with Bureau of Land Management’s new wild horse and burro management report to Congress.

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

Congress approved a Fiscal Year 2020 funding package that included an additional $21 million investment for a wild horse management strategy built upon the use of fertility control — a first step toward ending the inhumane, costly and unsustainable practice of capturing and warehousing these American icons. Lawmakers refused to release the additional funding until after the BLM produced a wild horse management report, which the agency did on Friday.

Unfortunately, BLM’s report is unclear and inconsistent even on fundamental issues.

For example, it focuses on large annual removals of 20,000-30,000 animals, some proportion of which would be permanently removed and a relatively small proportion treated with fertility control and released. Then other portions of the report call for 18,000 to 20,000 removed each year until the agency-set and arbitrarily low “Appropriate Management Level” is achieved, with fertility control vaccines implemented only at that point. Elsewhere, the report seems to describe fertility control efforts scaling up from Year One, which Return to Freedom hopes will be the case but at a faster pace than described.

Return to Freedom and a coalition of a diverse group of stakeholders has illustrated that scaling up meaningful levels of fertility control, alongside targeted gathers in areas that are environmentally stressed, is necessary to stabilize and then slow population growth rates on-range. This is how removals can begin to be reduced, in both numbers and occurrences, and long-term holding of displaced wild horses can be phased out.

“Change is long overdue,” DeMayo said. “It’s vital to the success of a new strategy and the future of wild horses on our public lands that Congress holds BLM accountable for finally producing a clear, humane plan with proven safe and humane fertility control at its center, on a Herd Management Area by Herd Management Area basis without delay.

“Implementing fertility control vaccines will slow down reproduction without interfering with natural selection and can prevent another 50 years of brutal and costly removals that only increase reproduction, as the 2013 National Academy of Sciences Report stated.”

In the report submitted to Congress, it appears that the BLM intends to primarily fall back on a failed practice of nearly 50 years by attempting to reach its on-range population goals for wild horses and burros primarily through capture and removal, even as costs and populations of wild horses on- and off-range continue to rise, without immediately scaling up the implementation of safe, proven and humane fertility control to needed levels.

Population modeling by Return to Freedom and other stakeholders has shown how different management paradigms affected wild horse populations. Immediately using fertility control on the range alongside removals is the only way to catch up with herd growth and stabilize BLM’s Wild Horse & Burro Program.

Congressional appropriators called for the use of “safe, proven and humane” methods of curbing population growth. The BLM report leaves on the table the surgical sterilization of mares and female burros (jennies), which Return to Freedom and other stakeholders strongly oppose. These procedures are invasive, dangerous and ultimately will prove inefficient at managing wild horse populations on the range.

The BLM’s plan seeks to reach its national Appropriate Management Level (AML) of only 26,690 wild horses and burros between the 15thto 18thyears of implementation of this new management plan.

Wild horse and burro management must be analyzed and planned on a Herd Management Area by Herd Management Area basis. Return to Freedom urges Congress to seek greater transparency for population counts and the controversial setting of “Appropriate Management Level”: the agency’s population goals for each Herd Management Area.

Return to Freedom is calling on Congress to look at public lands use through the lens of ecosystem health in a changing climate and with consideration of how AML can potentially be reset in the context of fertility control application. If a population of horses or burros is stabilized, AML can be adjusted (sometimes upwards) accordingly. We request that lands be analyzed towards true multiple use and healthy ecosystems operating at Proper Functioning Condition (PFC) and/or rangeland health indicators, and supporting those uses.

“We have not forgotten that 22.2 million acres have been taken away from wild horses since the passing of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act,” DeMayo said. “We also recognize that all activities including energy extraction, mining, wildlife, and livestock grazing impact the range and all species are facing impacts from climate change, increasing human expansion, the shifting economy and the multiple uses of public lands. For the BLM and other public land stakeholders to refuse to acknowledge that their respective industries impact range conditions, is an insult to the taxpayer and only continues the rhetoric that has created the current crisis.

“Horses are not solely to blame for range degradation. In keeping with the spirit and intention of the 1971 Act, which passed unanimously as a result of the will of the people, wild horses are federally protected and must be considered equally when determining the balance between extractive industries, livestock grazing, and the myriad other multi-uses on the range.”

The shift in conservation efforts globally is moving towards collaborative partnerships. Critical and central to this emerging culture are groups coalescing who have divergent points of view, backgrounds and skillsets. With the current challenges that we are all facing and climatic changes increasing, these relationships are vital to find solutions not only for wild horses but all species.

“Now is the time to continue working with divergent stakeholders and land management agencies to continue exploring non-lethal, humane, economically viable solutions to manage our public lands,” DeMayo said. “It is critical that we find common ground and support what we can all agree on: barring the use of any unsafe, unproven, inhumane sterilization tools, increasing use of proven safe and humane fertility control, relocating corralled horses to large range-like pastures, increasing public-private partnerships, increasing range restoration projects, protecting horses from slaughter and unrestricted sale to slaughter and phasing out almost 50 years of helicopter captures as the main management tool.

“By coming together, we can ensure that Congress has the information and support to hold BLM accountable for using tax dollars as Congress intended.”

While Return to Freedom is disappointed that BLM has not taken Congress’s request for a clear, non-lethal analysis of the Wild Horses & Burro Program seriously, RTF stands ready to continue its dialogue with lawmakers, other stakeholders, and the agency to ensure a humane, non-lethal and sustainable future for America’s wild horses and burros and the habitats upon which they depend.

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