Panel discussion: As populations of wild horses soar, so do tensions over management

/ In The News, News

Wild horses photographed in Utah. Associated Press file photo.

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As published by KNPR

The fight over wild horses in the West has put ranchers, animal advocates, conservationists, the Bureau of Land Management and others at odds with one another for decades.

Recently, however, ranchers and some animal advocates made peace.

It’s a plan called “The Path Forward for Management of BLM’s Wild Horses and Burros.”

Of course, not everyone is happy with it.

JJ Goicochea helped craft the plan. He’s the chairman of the Eureka County Commission and a veterinarian. He said over the past 10 years the population of wild horses in Nevada has grown to the point where it is unstainable.

He said the plan was put together with an eye to protecting both the ecosystem and the horses.

Goicochea said one of the problems is that in some places the horse populations are healthy, and in other areas, the animals are struggling with water and forage. It is something he has seen first hand.

“It is just terrible to have to have to watch those horses literally starve to death or choke for a drink of water,” he said.

In addition, Goicochea said the extra animals are impacting wildlife and delicate ecosystems.

“We are able to manage our livestock accordingly,” he said, “They’re out for certain periods of the year and then they’re in. They’re on private land. They’re being fed and we can manage around that. But where we’re really seeing impacts is where the horses are out there 12 months of the year and the wildlife populations are having to compete for those very limited resources.”

He said it is not just a problem in Nevada but also in Utah and Wyoming.

The Path Forward is a middle ground for everyone, Goicochea said.

“Between the groups, it took four years but I think we came out with a product that everybody – while we don’t agree with everything in it and they probably don’t agree with everything in it – it is the true definition of compromise and it will work,” he said.

Under the plan, there will be more roundups of wild horses, more birth control interventions and more adoptions. Plus, the coalition wants more money allocated to all of those efforts.

One of the groups involved in creating the Path Forward plan was Return to Freedom. Celeste Carlisle is a biologist and the science program manager for the group.

Her team focused on figuring out the birth control methods and how they could help curb the populations.

“The only reason we wanted to do it is to prove a point,” she said, “To prove that applying fertility controls alongside other management techniques is the only way you’re going to be able to stabilize populations.”

She said birth control measures have been part of the discussion for a long time but her group really wanted to dig into the data to see how long it would take and what kind of measures would work best.

Carlisle said they wanted to get to what would really work to address the issue.

“This is going to take a long-term commitment of funding… and we’ve got to be behind that and we’ve got to deeply understand that if we want to advocate for non-lethal solutions on the range,” she said.

The acting director of the Bureau of Land Management said the funding commitment would be $5 billion and 15 years to reduce the herds, which Goicochea agreed with.

Greg Hendricks is the director of field operations for the American Wild Horse Campaign, which has called the plan “a poorly disguised path to slaughter.”

“The plan is going to have large-scale roundups and that means somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 to 20,000 horses a year,” he said, “That is already going into a program that has 50,000 horses already in holding.”

He said when you start adding those numbers up by the time the program is completed there will be more than 133,000 horses in government holding facilities.

Hendricks said it will cost the government a lot of money to hold and feed the horses, which won’t be sustainable.

“Sooner or later, what will happen, we think, there is only a guarantee for one year that these horses won’t be slaughtered,” he said, “Eventually when the money starts to tighten up again, they’ll be looking at alternatives like slaughter.”

Goicochea doesn’t disagree that it will take extra money to fund the effort but he does say the horses will be protected from slaughter.

Besides the roundup and holding issue, Hendricks and his group take issue with the idea that horses are to blame for damage to ecosystems instead of the cattle and sheep that are run on the range.

“[Wild horses] have 27 million in acres total that they have access to and grazing has 155 million acres of federal land that they graze,” he said, “So, technically, when you compare wild horse impact to grazing impact from cattle and sheep, the cattle and sheep are much larger as far as the potential impact.”

While he doesn’t agree with this plan, Hendricks said he is not an advocate for a hands-off approach to wild horses in the West.

“There should be appropriate management and it should be done in a way that we’re not housing large numbers of horses and putting a burden both on the taxpayers and also on the BLM to have to try to find homes for all these animals,” he said.

In September, a Senate panel approved the plan and $35 million to implement it. It now goes to the Senate floor for a vote.