Courage needed to change wild horse management for the long run

/ In The News, News, Staff Blog

Wild horses at Return to Freedom’s San Luis Obispo satellite sanctuary. Photo by Irene Vejar.

Return to Freedom on Monday joined a diverse group of stakeholders to announce our support for a proposal to Congress that will at last place the Bureau of Land Management on a path toward non-lethal, humane, on-range management of America’s wild horses and burros.

The controversy over the use of grazing and water on our public lands has put America’s wild horses at risk for decades. Over the past few years, wild horse populations have gone mostly unmanaged by the Bureau of Land Management (except for removals) in spite of humane and proven tools which have been available, used and fiercely advocated for by Return to Freedom and other animal-welfare organizations for over 20 years.

Failure by BLM to use available humane alternatives led to a culture in the legislature that questioned the viability of proven safe and humane fertility control. The horses have been more vulnerable than ever to the very real threat of mass killing.

While it is less unnerving to stay out of these conversations, it has been very clear that groups from different sides of an issue must work together to find some common ground and build from there. This is a start. This is the beginning. This is a proposal that was developed from groups with very different priorities, willing to try to work together on a non-lethal remedy to a very long conflict that stretches further back then the early 1900s.

The landmark proposal: gives Congress the tools to force BLM to manage wild horses on the range with a robust fertility control program, eliminates the constant threat of lethal alternatives, redirects the focus away from unrestricted sales and inhumane sterilization methods.

The proposal features four key elements:

  1. Comprehensive large-scale application of proven, safe and humane fertility control strategies to help stabilize wild horse and burro populations on the range and to slow population growth.
  2. Targeted gathers of horses and burros in densely populated areas that cannot sustain large numbers of animals, to protect horses and burros from forage and water shortages, lower populations, and facilitate non-lethal fertility control and population control efforts.
  3. Relocate horses and burros in short-term holding facilities, and those taken off the range, to large cost-effective, humane pasture facilities that provide a free-roaming environment for wild horses and burros.
  4. Promoting the adoption of wild horses and burros into good homes to improve the lives of currently warehoused horses and burros, reduce the total cost of the program, and redirect funds to long-term strategies for the care and sustainability of horse and burro populations.

That wild horses and burros will be removed from the range under the proposal is alarming to many advocates — we understand: not one of us wants any horses removed from their range — but unmanaged population growth is very likely to lead to BLM implementing lethal management tools.

The proposal was modeled to run a 10-year course. Gathers are frontloaded in the first few years to allow the implementation of a fertility control program that is sustainable. Although gather numbers will be larger in the first few years of this proposal, the status quo under BLM’s current management structure would result in more horses and burros being removed from the range in the long-term.

At the end of 10 years, the proposal models that large-scale removals can be phased out on BLM lands- and the population of wild horses and burros will be managed with fertility control tools on the range, and small gathers of adoptable horses when necessary.

In 2019, BLM removed 11,472 wild horses from the range. The problem is that horses still on the range are reproducing so the roundups continue year after year. When the Agency has the budget they remove more horses, with a smaller budget they may remove less… populations continue growing, resulting in larger roundups when BLM’s budget allows. So the horses are coming off whether we like it or not and the conflict grows more heated against the horses.

Without a plan to reduce reproduction, this cycle of taxpayer-funded capture, removal, and warehousing of wild horses and burros will never end- or will result in wild horses and burros being killed Postponing solutions doesn’t stop the inevitable- if this program isn’t fixed- at some point in the very near future, lethal methods will be used.

To be clear: RTF does not believe that the “Appropriate Management Levels” (AML) set by BLM are supported by current and unbiased science.

However, BLM is mandated to maintain the public lands for multiple uses, and, under that legal landscape, the agency has determined that management of wild horses are necessary in most Herd Management Areas (HMAs) – a position supported by Congress.

AML is a very controversial topic with both wild horse advocates as well as ranching interests, for opposite reasons. We at RTF believe that AML needs to be re-examined on a range-by-range basis, but, right now, it is imperative that a successful on-the-range management program is established.

Since its inception in 1971, the BLM’s Wild Horse & Burro Program has removed some 270,000 wild horses and burros. Unfortunately, BLM has failed to address reproduction. Even as the off-range population has climbed to more than 50,000 wild horses in government corrals and on leased pastures, BLM’s on-range population estimate grew to almost 82,000 by last spring.

This cycle of capture-and-removal is tragic because it was unnecessary: In 2007, BLM was within 1,000 wild horses of its own population target (called “Appropriate Management Level” or AML) of 26,690. The agency has never invested as much as 4% of its annual program budget on fertility control, however.

Since 2007, BLM’s on-range population estimate has climbed by 52,488 wild horses and burros, its off-range numbers by 20,703 animals in holding facilities, and the program’s budget allocation by $38.7 million.

At the same time, the political climate around the wild horse issue has only grown more heated and more precarious for the animals.

This current administration’s first three budget proposals to Congress have called for BLM to be able to euthanize healthy unadopted wild horses and burros and to sell them without restrictions against slaughter, a message supported by the House four years ago. Only the Senate has stood in the way, so far blocking these dangerous moves. At the same time, drought and other climatic changes have raised concern about the condition and future of rangelands.

Something has to change in order to ensure that America’s wild horses and burros have a sustainable future on the range, where they belong. This is a short term proposal that fixes the problem in the long run.

Otherwise, growing taxpayer costs and population figures will place the lives of wild horses and burros – and futures of whole free-roaming herds — at ever-greater risk. We can’t assume that Congress will allow ballooning costs indefinitely.

We at RTF wanted to do all we could to ensure the safety of captured animals — and reduce the likelihood of future roundups — by pushing for the implementation of the sort of safe, humane fertility control, like PZP, which we have successfully modeled at our American Wild Horse Sanctuary.

We made a choice to stay engaged in these often-difficult stakeholder meetings because we felt it was the right thing to do for the future of America’s wild horses. We’ve always maintained that we would need to work with those who disagree with us in order for real change to occur.

We understand that the devil remains in the details.

Know that RTF will continue to advocate for NEPA and be sure BLM isn’t exceeding its authority or unduly placing wild horses and burros at risk.

We will hold the agency’s feet to the fire, continuing to challenge – in court if necessary – practices and policies that could set a negative precedent for wild horses like unrestricted sale authority.

And we will remain active on Capitol Hill, working hard ensure wild and domestic horses aren’t slaughtered and to help safeguard laws like the National Environmental Policy Act that are key to protecting the future of America’s wild horses.

Until today, nothing like this proposal has been offered to Congress before. It’s our hope that lawmakers will now use their control over funding to force BLM to chart a humane, fiscally responsible course for wild horse and burro oversight.

The political stalemate placing wild horses lives in ever-greater jeopardy needed to be broken, replaced with a way forward that ensures humane, non-lethal oversight — and for the protection of America’s wild horses and burros for generations to come.

Have more questions? Click to read our proposal FAQ.