Return to Freedom sues BLM over plan to surgically sterilize wild mares

Sulphur Springs mares Redbird and Bonita at RTF’s Lompoc, Calif., headquarters sanctuary. Photo by Irene Vejar.
For Immediate Release

Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation today filed suit in federal court in California to halt a Bureau of Land Management plan to surgically sterilize wild mares using a procedure that is dangerous, inhumane, and an unnecessary risk especially when proven, well-studied and previously utilized modes of alternative fertility control exist. 

Neda DeMayo, founder and president of RTF, a national nonprofit advocacy organization, said BLM’s plan ignores the spirit and intent of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, in which Congress explicitly expressed that BLM must protect wild horses “from capture, branding, harassment or death.” Under BLM’s plan, the lives of wild mares would be placed at risk by the very federal agency charged with making decisions benefitting wild horses and burros on behalf of the American people.

“BLM is marching blindly into another management dead-end, risking the lives of federally protected wild mares at the expense of taxpayers who vehemently oppose such surgeries,” DeMayo said. “RTF strongly supports safe, proven fertility control vaccines that are a humane and practical way to slow herd growth and finally phase out BLM’s decades-long practice of capturing and removing wild horses from their ranges.” 

BLM is currently conducting a helicopter roundup on the Confusion Herd Management Area in Utah. At some point after its completion, the agency plans to hire presently unknown veterinarians to perform a painful and invasive surgical procedure in which a mare’s ovaries are crushed then pulled out with a looped chain instrument. The mares would later be released onto the range.

BLM’s relentless pursuit of sterilization surgeries continues in spite of Congress adding $21 million to the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program to be used in a multi-pronged non-lethal alternative program supported by RTF and other stakeholders with the use of proven, safe andhumane fertility control at its center. On Nov. 19, 58 members of Congress sent a letter to the Secretary of the Interior calling on BLM to drop its surgical sterilization plan.

Called ovariectomy via colpotomy, the planned surgery includes risks of infection, bleeding anddeath.  A BLM-commissioned report from the National Academy of Sciences advised against the use of the procedures on wild mares. In addition, there are no substantive studies to evaluate long-termhealth of ovariectomized mares.

The BLM continues to throw good money after bad. This will be at least the third time that BLM has gone to court over plans to surgically sterilize wild mares, despite polls showing the public supports protections for wild horses and burros. For example, BLM in 2016 abandoned a plan to spend $348,000 on sterilization experiments in Oregon on 225 mares, including at least 100 pregnant mares, after public opposition and litigation.

In 2017, wild horse advocates, including RTF, prevailed in a federal lawsuit challenging BLM’s efforts to permanently sterilize an entire Idaho herd of horses. The court found that BLM: has a legal mandate to protect horses’ wild free-roaming behaviors and manage wild horses in self-sustaining herds,and that sterilizing wild horses impacts the herd’s social structure, the wild horses’ behavior, and the public’s interest in preserving and observing those natural instincts and behaviors.

Unlike surgical sterilization, the immuno-contraceptive fertility control vaccine PZP has more than three decades of research supporting its use.  Other fertility control vaccines, including some that are longer acting, are receiving further attention and study. These have strong public support and can be injected by hand or by dart by trained technicians, making them far more humane, and cost-effective ways to slow herd growth. 

RTF is represented by attorney Bruce Wagman of Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila LLP.