House committee OKs funding bill calling for wild horse fertility control

/ Hearings, In The News, News

Photo taken at RTF’s San Luis Obispo, Calif., satellite sanctuary by Lynn Bowers.

The House Interior Appropriations Committee on Wednesday again emphasized the need for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to implement proven, safe and humane fertility control, a tool needed to keep wild horses and burros managed on the range.

The Committee approved a $44.8 billion bill for Fiscal Year 2023 that includes $156 million for the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program — a $19 million increase over the program’s 2022 budget.

The allocation includes up to $11 million “for research on reversible immunocontraceptive fertility control and its administration.” Congress approved the same amount for “administration of and research of reversible immunocontraceptive fertility control” for 2022.

Return to Freedom (RTF) continues to emphasize that $11 million is a fraction of what is necessary in order to create a successful fertility control program in the West, one which replaces removals as the agency’s primary management tool and saves taxpayer dollars over the long run.

“We applaud the Committee for continuing to support proven, safe and humane fertility control,” said Neda DeMayo, president of RTF. “However, we are concerned that the fertility control language allows BLM to use the $11 million for research when there are decades of data to support scaling up of existing fertility control now. We hope that the House and Senate will revise this language in the final funding package.”

“Delaying the use of readily available fertility control shown to be proven, safe and humane by decades of peer-reviewed science will only continue kicking the can down the road with the agency’s failed and inhumane practice of removing wild horses and burros from their rightful rangelands,” DeMayo added.

The bill’s accompanying report language “directs the Bureau to develop plans that ensure they can administer fertility control, conduct targeted removals from the most heavily and impacted population areas, expand long-term off-range holding and any alternatives, and increase adoptions. To better accomplish these goals, the Bureau should establish public/private partnerships, to include working with veterans and wild horse organizations, to implement a robust immunocontraceptive fertility control program.”

The Committee’s direction to focus planning on fertility control is positive, as is a call for increased public-private partnerships that RTF has modeled and advocated for over two decades.

The Committee’s direction to increase long-term holding also has the potential to be positive. It further directs a multi-agency Wild Horse Task Force to “examine how to increase off-range holdings that can sustain year-round grazing by many horses.” RTF has repeatedly called for captive wild horses and burros to be moved from holding corrals to more natural and cost-effective pastures.

The Committee also directs the BLM to update it on the “efficacy of identifying and relocating horses to different Herd Management Areas,” which RTF supports over removals to off-range holding, and especially with an emphasis on keeping family bands and herds together. RTF has advocated heavily for relocation projects as an alternative to fracturing herds and sending the horses to off-range holding corrals.

Though RTF’s goal is to end removals as BLM’s primary wild horse management tool, the Committee’s direction to focus removals “from the most heavily and impacted population areas,” if put into practice, would be a noteworthy break with what often appears to advocates as a failure to ecologically prioritize where wild horse and burro roundups are conducted.

The BLM has spent resources removing large numbers of horses from areas where they are most easily trackable. These are areas that are actually ideal for fertility control projects immediately as opposed to massive removals. Additionally, to continue removing horses without managing the reproduction of the horses left on those ranges has proven to increase reproduction and repeated removals within five years.

The bill contains other positive language, including:

–Continuing a prohibition on BLM and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) selling wild horses and burros to slaughter or euthanizing healthy equines. RTF successfully lobbied to have this prohibition extended to USFS beginning with the Fiscal Year 2020 budget.

–Repeating Congress’s demand that “all removals are conducted in strict compliance with the Bureau’s Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program and any population growth suppression strategies must be proven, safe, and humane,” language RTF lobbied hard for that has been included by Congress since Fiscal Year 2020.

RTF continues to advocate and actively communicate with agency leadership for greater transparency and accountability for violations of the Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program, a set of humane handling standards, and for constant reexamination and improvement of those standards.

–Directing the $71 million Species Management Research Program to supplement that funding to “significantly progress research on reversible immunocontraceptive fertility control for wild horses and burros.”

–Calling for a multi-agency Wild Horse Task Force to review BLM’s fertility control efforts and reviewing BLM’s Adoption Incentive Program (AIP) “to make sure there are no weaknesses that would jeopardize the welfare of these animals.”

RTF continues to push for changes in the AIP’s $1,000 cash incentive, which has resulted in an unknown number of wild horses and burros being held for a year until title is transferred, then sold at auctions frequented by kill buyers who ship equines to Mexican and Canadian slaughterhouses. The incentive program also increases the risk of wild horses being adopted to well-meaning adopters unable to provide for a horse, ending up in abusive situations or the slaughter pipeline.

Though BLM has made modifications to the AIP program since its creation in 2019, RTF has called for a full outside investigation of the program and, if the program is to be continued, more thorough background checks for adopters, the replacement of cash incentives with vouchers for training or veterinary care, and other changes to better safeguard wild horses and burros.

–Emphasizing to the USFS “the importance of screening adopters and purchasers to ensure the welfare and safe outcomes for the horses and burros adopted and sold by the agency,” while noting that it is encouraged by the USFS’s ongoing collaboration with BLM on the development of a database to track wild horses and burros on and off the range.

–Directing BLM to ensure the program is at full staffing capacity. The agency has had one staff person to review contracts, further slowing the implementation of needed fertility control. Another example: a lack of sufficient staff was found to be among the BLM policy violations a report found at Cañon City, Colo., off-range holding corrals in the wake of the deaths of 145 horses there this spring.

The bill also includes $1 million for the Foundation for America’s Public Lands with a direction that it be used to assist BLM with “the challenge of wild free-roaming horses and burros” but provides no other instructions for its use.

While the bill’s guiding report language contains a number of potential positives for wild horses and burros, the bill problematically affirms the BLM’s May 2020 report to Congress: a vague and often self-contradictory plan of aggressive roundups with little use of fertility control before reaching the agency’s arbitrarily set “Appropriate Management Level”: its population target for wild horses and burros.

This is a continuation of BLM’s failed approach of management by removal of wild horses while failing to address reproduction.

Population modeling by RTF and other stakeholders has shown that immediately implementing fertility control alongside any removal that BLM conducts is the only way to catch up with and stabilize herd growth so that on-range management can replace removals.

If BLM does not implement fertility control immediately, in a robust way, to slow (not stop) population growth, then the agency will continue to chase and briefly achieve its “Appropriate Management Levels” on some of the 177 Herd Management Areas, only to soon return to remove more wild horses and burros from their home ranges.

During Fiscal Year 2021, BLM removed 13,666 wild horses and burros from the range compared to just 1,160 fertility control treatments out of an agency-estimated 86,189 wild horses and burros on the range. For Fiscal Year 2022, BLM has set out to remove “at least” a record 19,000 wild horses and burros while treating just 2,300 with fertility control. This comes with 58,314 captive horses and burros in off-range holding as of May.

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