In turnabout, Advisory Board pushes for fertility control; calls for outside audit, holistic planning

/ Hearings, In The News, News
Photo taken at RTF’s San Luis Obispo, Calif., satellite sanctuary.

The National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board on Thursday voted to call for immediate use of fertility control to slow herd growth, comprehensive planning approaches for Herd Management Areas, and an outside audit of the Bureau of Land Management’s wild horse program’s organizational and decision-making structure.

“The solution that the vast majority of people want to work toward is a non-lethal solution, and the board wants to honor that,” said Return to Freedom biologist Celeste Carlisle, who occupies the board’s wild horse and burro advocacy seat, after the two-day virtual meeting. 

“(The other board members) understand that. They’re not representing a personal bias. They’re bringing their experience and depth of knowledge. This board really trusts each other and values the expertise that each person brings to the table, even if we disagree.”

Carlisle said that BLM needs to pursue real ecologically-based management with more standardized decision-making. Other federal agencies take a much more holistic approach to managing wildlife species that takes into account everything from soil condition to how animals move seasonally, she said. 

“We want BLM to look at all uses, including wildlife and horses and burros and livestock,” Carlisle said. “We’re also not trying to single out horses — we’re trying to bring them into context that they, too, are equalized users of this landscape.” 

The call for an audit is intended to improve and standardize decision-making processes for the BLM. The agency, including its Wild Horse and Burro Program, has seen heavy turnover and its bureaucracy elicits frequent complaints from all sides of the wild horse issue.

Among the recommendations passed Thursday was one that called on the agency to expand fertility control implementation, develop measurable objectives for its use, and put into place multi-year plans to reduce population growth rates at the Herd Management Area level. 

In the spring, the BLM estimated the on-range population of wild horses and burros at 95,114. As of August, another 47,845 captured animals were living in government corrals or on leased pastures.

BLM’s national “Appropriate Management Level,” or horse and burro population the agency believes the land can sustain is 26,770 across HMAs in 10 Western states, and is controversial, in part, because wild horses and burros are often vastly outnumbered by the livestock that graze on public lands under a multiple-use legal mandate.

For nearly 50 years, BLM has attempted to reach its wild horse population target by capturing, removing and warehousing wild horses and burros, with a small percentage adopted or sold. The agency has never spent as much as 4 percent of its wild horse program budget on safe, proven and humane fertility control. As a result, numbers on and off the range have climbed and with them the cost to taxpayers.

While the advisory board called for more research on longer-lasting fertility control, it also recommended using the fertility control that is available right now – a significant step forward.

“We’re all hopeful for longer-lasting fertility control. It means handling those horses less,” Carlisle said. “But by getting started now, we can begin the process of reducing the number of times we need to get hands on these animals or gather or dart them.”

The board also called for fertility control use on HMAs upon which the agency has not yet reached its AML, or population target. That’s something BLM has been reluctant to do, even refused to do, preferring instead to capture and remove horses down to an AML level that may have been set using decades-old science. 

One recommendation reads, “The board recognizes that reproductive growth rates on the range must be reduced immediately so that overall numbers of horses or burros, as well as overall numbers of gathers, begins downward trending.”

That kind of language marked a far cry from meetings in 2016-18, when the advisory board overall was dismissive of fertility control and voted to recommend killing tens of thousands of wild horses in government holding facilities, selling them without restriction (to slaughter) and even allowing overseas sales and adoptions. 

The nine-member board has long leaned toward ranching interests. It is made up of volunteers appointed by the secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture. The board cannot control policy, only make recommendations. 

In 2016 and 2017, the only Advisory Board member to vote against recommending lethal tools was Ginger Kathrens of The Cloud Foundation. In 2018, Return to Freedom biologist Celeste Carlisle joined Kathrens as a dissenting vote before Kathrens’ term on the board ended.

Carlisle has committed herself to building rapport between members and uses common sense along with sound science to move controversy towards non-lethal solutions that are humane and viable. Meaningful discussions about management must be had and are never easy, but RTF is pleased to see this culture shift and hopes this conversation can continue to pave the way for lifesaving solutions for our wild horses and burros.

In Carlisle’s first meeting, in 2018, she proposed a statement that the board prefers “non-lethal management options for population control purposes when possible.”

It passed, but only by a vote of 4-3.

“Maybe everyone is just tired of being tired of it all — and everyone’s trying to give it all they can in as positive of a way as possible,” she said. “We need to dig down and work collaboratively, because it’s the only way.”

The advisory board approved these recommendations, all but one of which passed unanimously:

1–The Board recommends that BLM immediately begin to integrate wildlife management plan concepts (template developed by wildlife management agencies) on an HMA-by-HMA basis into a comprehensive, range-wide wild horses and burro management plan that includes contingencies for stochastic events and rangeland integrity, including riparian habitats.

2–The Board recommends that future research include: development and implementation of predictive models for animal movements that will likely expand resource degradation areas; and development and application of new tools (e.g., terrestrial laser scanners, drones, GPS collars) to measure concurrent forage use among large herbivores.

3–The Board recommends that the agency expand fertility control implementation and develop measurable objectives outlining a targeted reproductive growth rate reduction and multi-year plans, on an HMA-by-HMA basis. The effort should include fertility control treatments combined with gather operations, including HMAs where AML will not immediately be achieved.  The Board recognizes that reproductive growth rates on the range must be reduced immediately so that overall numbers of horses or burros, as well as overall numbers of gathers, begins downward trending.

4–The Board recommends BLM compile and furnish to the Board an inventory of HMAs that have current, approved National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) decision documents, that contain fertility control components, as well as the type of fertility control(s) acceptable within the limits of that document.

5–The Board recommends that the BLM continue research into long term fertility control options, but that shorter-term, currently available safe and humane methods be utilized immediately.  As longer-term fertility control modalities become available, the Board recommends that they be implemented, especially in more challenging HMAs, in order to increase management options.

6–The Board recommends that BLM identify the behavioral, physiological and social differences between wild horses and burros. BLM should expand the program’s capabilities to manage burro populations humanely and appropriately based on those differences and burro interactions (neutral, negative, and facilitative) with other wildlife.

7–In order to improve the BLM’s WH&B program decision efficiency and identify areas in need of improvement, the Board recommends an external audit of systemic internal organizational strategy and structure, capabilities and protocols. The Board recommends that BLM work collaboratively with diverse stakeholder groups.  The transparent audit should be performed by a neutral, third party with capabilities in organizational structure and set up. The Board should have an active, robust, and positive role. Board member Vernon Blech, who represents wildlife management, abstained from this vote. 

TAKE ACTION: Send a message to your members of Congress urging them to press BLM on the implementation of fertility control.

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