Secretary Zinke’s remarks about wild horses, annotated

Secretary Ryan Zinke testified for more than two hours on Wednesday before the House Interior Subcommittee on the Trump administration’s Fiscal Year 2019 Interior Department budget, which would allow the Bureau of Land Management to kill healthy wild horses and burros.

Zinke spoke for about three minutes on the wild horse issue, in response to a question from Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah (see 1:39:00 in the video above).

Read what Zinke said, then take a closer look at the facts:

Secretary Zinke:…This is where the numbers are: The ground will hold about 27,000 healthy horses[1]. We have 108,000 horses, 45,000 are in captivity[2]. We’re spending $81 million on the horse program[3]. The current practice has been this: When a horse population gets larger, we go out, we round up, and we take the excess off, and then the excess goes off into either corrals — which is inhumane for wild horses to be in captivity[4]. But we really haven’t been able to address the growth[5]. So every time we get to this period, Congress will put a rider in, either the House or the Senate, it’s a fight to get the rider in or out[6], and then we don’t address the growth.

So what we’re looking at doing is either birth control, [spaying], neutering[7], but looking at rounding up the horses, in a humane way, and focus on the growth. It is unsustainable to continue doing what we’re doing, and, quite frankly, the most inhumane thing we can do is no action. So I accept that … We’re working with the Humane Society. I’ve had the first meeting ever with stakeholders that are passionate horse advocates. So we’re trying to say, ‘Alright, this is what we’ve got to do.’ And I’m an advocate, quite frankly, of rounding the horses up and going on the [spaying], neutering, birth control, because that’s really the only option that we have on the table to focus on growth and focus on making sure we have healthy herds and striving to that number[8].

We’re also working with some Indian tribes. Some of our reservations have a lot of land that are open spaces, so we’re working with some of our Indian nations to accommodate some of the horses rather than as we round up and neuter and [spay] rather than spending the rest of their existence in a cubicle, it’d probably be better, I think more humane, to have them on open range, so we’re working on that.[9]

Rep. Stewart:…If you look at these horses in captivity, there are thousands of them sitting where they have a few feet to move, and they just sit there in the dust all day. And It’s very unfortunate for them. You know, I think we’ve got to do something permanent, the spay and the neutering. The inoculations, I think we know now, are not effective and nearly impossible to administer effectively[10]so we appreciate you taking a more aggressive stand….


The Bureau of Land Management has resisted calls to give up its practice of capturing and warehousing wild horses. RTF file photo by Steve Paige.

[1]Secretary Zinke is referring to the much-disputed “Appropriate Management Level” set by the Bureau of Land Management of 26,716 wild horses and burros. The national AML would leave about one horse or burro for every 1,006 acres of BLM-managed public land. This population target is also just 1,416 wild horses and burros more than the number of horses present on public lands in 1971, when the Wild and Free-Roaming Wild Horses Act declared that they were “fast disappearing from the American scene.”

[2]The most recent on-range numbers released by BLM are from March 2017: 72,614, the most recent off-range numbers released are from February 2018: 46,431. BLM’s projections for the on-range population of horses by October 2018 is 93,100.

[3]In 2016, BLM used about 67% of its Wild Horse and Burro Program to round up and stockpile horses compared to less than 1% spent on safe, effective fertility control to manage horses on the range. BLM has never spent more than 3.94% of the wild horse program’s annual budget on fertility control.

[4]In February 2018, 11,752 wild horses and burros were being kept in corrals, while another 34,044 wild horses were living on leased pastures. In Fiscal Year 2016, this warehousing of wild horses and burros cost taxpayers $135,452 per day. BLM spent $324,500 on fertility control for the whole of that same year.

[5]BLM has made no real attempt to control wild horse population growth in any way other than an unsustainable cycle of capturing and warehousing wild horses. In fact, in 2007, BLM was 1,071 wild horses and burros from its own population target, by the agency’s own estimates. Since then, it had never spent more than 3.94% of its wild horse program budget on fertility control – despite a 2013 National Academy of Sciences report that called fertility control an effective tool. The report also blamed BLM’s practice of capture and removal for potentially increasing the population growth rate because of compensatory reproduction mechanisms, which can lead to higher birth rates in a population as a response to environmental stressors.

[6]Riders are inserted by Congress to prevent BLM from using tax dollars to kill healthy unadopted wild horses and burros. President Trump’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget proposal would have allowed BLM to euthanize – shoot – captive wild horses and burros. Though Zinke did not mention it in his remarks, the administration’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget proposal released earlier this year — and what Zinke was testifying on in this hearing — would also allow BLM to kill healthy animals. It took advocates working with bipartisan allies in Congress to ensure that protective language was included in the FY18 omnibus spending package, defeating an unsuccessful lobbying effort by Rep. Stewart, BLM and private interests to kill healthy wild horses and burros.

[7]For 20 years, wild horse advocates, including RTF, have promoted the use of reversible fertility control vaccines because they are non-hormonal and do not alter herd dynamics in the way that costly and potentially dangerous field sterilization surgeries would. There are serious logistical issues to on-range fertility control programs (darting on foot is limited, for instance); however, there are also very serious issues with doing a large number of spays on wild horse mares in a field situation. These include cost, having veterinarians on hand to do many surgeries, facilities needed for the recovery of unhandleable mares and the transportation of animals to and from facilities. Research into creating longer-lasting fertility control vaccines is ongoing, with good results. It is very likely that in a few years, they will be a game-changer. Nevertheless, we should be developing better, humane protocols for wild horse management right now.

[8]There are other humane options, including revisiting AML targets and incentivizing the reduced use of grazing permits by livestock owners who graze their animals on public land. Wild horses and burros are restricted to 11 percent of BLM land and even there are greatly outnumbered by privately owned livestock. Authorized livestock use on BLM lands for 2016 was 12 million Animal Unit Months (AUMs). That’s the equivalent of 1 million cow/calf pairs. (1 AUM = 1 horse, 1 cow/calf pair, 5 sheep.)Authorized wild horse use on BLM lands is just 320,580 AUMs. In addition, BLM charges ranchers just $1.41 per AUM–compared to the market rate of about $20 on private land.

[9]It would be illegal for the BLM to turn wild horses over to tribes for placement on reservation land because the 1971 law requires them to be managed on lands they were found at the time of enactment. The law would have to be changed. Some tribes have considerable wild horses management challenges of their own. For example, about 40,000 wild horses roam the Navajo Nation’s reservation, causing the tribal government to recently consider allowing a pilot hunt of 60 horses before ultimately rejecting the proposal. Several other tribes have expressed similar concerns and any such proposal would cost millions of dollars and increased oversight on reservations.

[10]The fertility control vaccine PZP is 90% effective across a variety of species, according to the Science and Conservation Center, and is backed by more than two decades of peer-reviewed studies. RTF’s American Wild Horse Sanctuary has successfully used the vaccine to manage herd growth since 1999, achieving an efficacy rate of 91-98%. A growing number of projects on and off the range have achieved similar results. Like Stewart, BLM has used the challenge of darting wild horses and burros to justify its failure to implement an aggressive fertility control program; however, bait and water trapping would allow BLM or nonprofit partners to dart and release wild horses on the range. In fact, BLM has stated numerous times that partnerships with nonprofit and other organizations to implement fertility control programs at field offices throughout the west is “a priority,” yet no protocol exists to support, establish and oversee these magical programs. Will implimenting fertility control be a challenge? Yes. Will on-foot darting programs on enormous Herd Management Areas with intractable horses work? No. But a multi-pronged approach to increasing fertility control vaccine administration among partners and as a large portion of every roundup could decrease the number of horses needing to be warehoused and paid for over their lifetime.  Would an immune-contraceptive work quickly?  No. This will be slow, steady work. RTF is among the organizations working tirelessly to determine what this breakover point would be and how it can be achieved effectively, as soon as possible.

Take Action

  • Urge your representative and senators to:
    • Oppose Fiscal Year 19 Interior Appropriations bill language allowing BLM to kill wild horses and burros;
    • Cosponsor the SAFE Act (HR 113 / S. 1706) to ban slaughter and the transportation of horses for slaughter.
  • Urge your representative to cosponsor the Horse Transportation Safety Act (HR 4040) to ban hauling horses on double-deck trailers under all circumstances.
  • Sign RTF’s Wild on the Range petition, calling for humane management solutions.
  • Donate to RTF’s Wild Horse Defense Fund, which fuels our advocacy, lobbying and selective litigation efforts.