President’s budget proposal a shift toward non-lethal wild horse solutions, raises sterilization concerns

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Wild horses at RTF’s San Luis Obispo, Calif., satellite sanctuary photographed by Norma Fries.

For Immediate Release

LOMPOC, CALIFORNIA (Feb. 10, 2020) –Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation on Monday expressed relief that for the first time a presidential administration is proposing a much-needed investment into non-lethal steps to improve the management of America’s wild horses and burros.

Still, concerns remain. President Trump’s budget proposal also reflects the Bureau of Land Management’s continued misguided pursuit of sterilization surgeries known as ovariectomy via colpotomy on wild mares and burro jennies – surgeries that are dangerous, costly, unproven, unpopular with the American people, and, above all, unnecessary given the ready availability of safe, proven fertility control vaccines. Also of concern: the inclusion of invasive sterilization techniques such as intrauterine devices, tubal ligation and occlusion of the oviduct.

The president’s Fiscal year 2021 budget proposal includes a $15.3 million increase for the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Budget for a total of $116.8 million. For Fiscal Year 2020, Congress appropriated $117 million to the program. Both are a considerable increase over 2019, when Congress appropriated $80.6 million.

The budget proposal has the potential to continue a seismic shift in wild horse and burro management, depending on how agency spending is prioritized.

“We’ve not forgotten that the president’s Fiscal 2018 budget proposal would have opened the door for BLM to euthanize tens of thousands of federally protected wild horses and burros in government holding facilities or sell them without restriction (to slaughter),” said Neda DeMayo, founder and president of Return to Freedom. “We appreciate that the administration now recognizes that there’s a better, non-lethal way. If a robust fertility control program is provided with consistent, sustained funding, it can lead to the phasing out of politically divisive, ineffective, and inhumane roundups and the warehousing of wild horses after nearly five decades of failed policy.”

In 2017, House Appropriators passed an amendment to the Interior appropriations bill that would have allowed BLM to euthanize — in all likelihood shoot — healthy wild horses and burros. A year later came a push to allow mass sterilization. Neither succeeded, but it became clear that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were increasingly willing to consider lethal outcomes given the growing cost of the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program as well as the number of wild horses on the range and in government facilities.

The BLM also signaled plans to increase roundups without any indication it would invest in fertility control, upon which the agency has never spent as much as 4% of its annual program budget.

In response to this growing threat, Return to Freedom, the Humane Society of the United States and ASPCA worked with ecologists and economists to model a scientifically, legally and politically viable, non-lethal alternative to present to Congress. It took into account BLM’s ongoing, congressionally supported roundups and how quickly a robust program would allow fertility control to catch up with reproduction.

As of March 2019, the BLM estimated there were 88,090 wild horses on the range, with another 48,918 in government holding facilities as of January. While there is continued skepticism about BLM’s population estimates, a 2013 National Academy of Sciences report found BLM often undercounted herds.

In an unprecedented move, the animal-welfare organizations also brought other rangeland stakeholders into the process, finding enough common ground to receive support for the non-lethal alternative from cattlemen’s groups and local and state government officials in states with large wild horse populations.

“That understandably was met with wariness and opposition from some wild horse advocates. Under the status quo, however, if BLM removes 12,000 horses per year without implementing fertility control, the on-range population will reach approximately 235,000 horses in 10 years — a number that would surely put them at risk of destruction by the agency. It’s important now more than ever that we unite to continue holding BLM accountable to ensure that funds are used to implement what we all agree on: increased public-private partnerships, range restoration to benefit all wildlife, and, most importantly, the use of meaningful amounts of fertility control as a way to end roundups for good,” DeMayo said.

Congress chose to fund the stakeholder proposal with bipartisan support for Fiscal Year 2020. The House and Senate agreed to provide $21 million in additional funding to implement humane, safe and effective methods to curb population growth as well as to move captive animals from corrals to more cost-effective and more natural pasture facilities, increase adoptions and fund public-private partnerships for projects ranging from fertility control darting to herd and rangeland monitoring.

The additional funding marked the first time Congress has specifically funded a fertility control program. By only providing extra funding for “humane, safe and effective” population control methods, it also set three standards that sterilization surgeries do not yet meet, which is why advocates must remain vigilant.

Return to Freedom will continue to oppose at every turn BLM research into sterilization surgeries like ovariectomy via colpotomy on federally protected horses. These procedures are dangerous, unproven and costly. BLM lacks the number of veterinarians to ramp up such a program, as well. Importantly, such surgeries are also unnecessary given the availability of effective, well-researched fertility control, which safely slows but does not stop reproduction, and which can be applied by technicians.

“Life-threatening sterilization research by the agency tasked with protecting wild horses and burros violates the spirit of the 1971 Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act and is a clear case of throwing good taxpayer money after bad,” DeMayo said. “Not only would it put mares and jennies at risk, but it would also result in needless delays. It would mean more money spent on court costs that should be spent on fertility control efforts that would make a real difference and that have strong public support.”

Congress will not release the additional Fiscal Year 2020 funding until BLM presents lawmakers with a detailed plan for how it will spend it, a document BLM has not yet produced.

“It’s critically important that Congress play a strong oversight role, and that advocates remain vigilant to ensure that the funding now made available to the agency is used to benefit the horses,” DeMayo said. “Return to Freedom will continue to challenge invasive surgeries for population control and the BLM’s interpretation of ‘humane’ as it applies to management methods.

“The potential exists to shift BLM away from the status quo of never-ending roundups and lethal solutions and toward proven humane, sustainable and minimally invasive management that will allow wild herds to roam our public lands for generations to come – a victory of which we could all be proud.”