Senate bill calls for BLM funding increase, use of fertility control

/ In The News, News

Photo taken on the Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range HMA by Meg Frederick.

The Senate Interior Appropriations Committee on Monday released a funding bill that includes $151.6 million for the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Program in Fiscal Year 2022, a 31 percent increase over 2021.

By comparison, the House Interior Appropriation Committee’s 2022 bill released in July totaled $162.1 million for BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program, a 40 percent increase over the $115.8 million Congress appropriated for Fiscal Year 2021.

The Senate and House bills are unlikely to pass but instead be combined in an omnibus funding package. They do provide a window into Congress’s perspective on wild horse and burro management, however.

The Senate bill includes $11 million “is to implement a robust and humane fertility control strategy of reversible immunocontraceptive vaccines.” The House bill also set aside $11 million for “research on reversible immunocontraceptive fertility control and its administration.”

Regarding the funding for fertility control, the Senate committee wrote that “While research into new fertility control technologies will be helpful in the future, BLM has valuable tools at its disposable today to control wild horse and burro populations humanely. For instance, the Committee is concerned that removals from the range can have the unintended effect of increasing foaling and therefore BLM should ensure that eligible mares are treated if they are to be released after a gather.”

Return to Freedom appreciates the Senate committee’s call for BLM to immediately use safe, proven and humane fertility control that is available right now.

“We strongly urge appropriators to be forceful about holding BLM’s feet to the fire on the immediate implementation of a robust fertility control program,” said Neda DeMayo, president of RTF. “Significantly more than $11 million will be needed in order to achieve an effective fertility control program.”

BLM’s decades-old attempt to rely almost solely on roundups while failing to address reproduction by investing even as much as 4% of its annual Wild Horse and Burro Program budget in proven fertility control vaccines has resulted in growing numbers of horses on the range and in costly holding facilities. As a result, in 2017, the administration and some members of Congress pushed hard for euthanizing tens of thousands of horses in holding and / or sale without restriction (to slaughter).

An alternative offered by RTF and a diverse group of stakeholders has helped turn the tide toward non-lethal solutions, and has had Congress, for the first time, calling for the use of fertility control in Fiscal Year 2020 appropriations. Yet BLM has remained focused on aggressive roundups while treating fewer than 1,500 mares with fertility control in Fiscal Year 2020 out of an agency-estimated 86,189 wild horses on the range.

In its guiding explanatory statement, the Senate committee reiterated its support for BLM’s May 2020 report on “achieving a sustainable program through an aggressive, non-lethal population control strategy and expects implementation of this strategy to continue. The Committee remains committed to providing the funds and tools the Bureau needs to protect the animals within its care while also protecting the rangelands they share with dozens of native species.”

The House committee also underscored its support for BLM’s report.

The Senate committee added that it “expects the Bureau to continue and expand other efforts in line with the May 2020 strategy. This includes increased gathers which will also help implement the (fertility control) vaccine strategy, improving on-range removal capacity, and securing a greater number of less costly and longer-term off-range holding facilities and pastures.”

RTF took issue with BLM’s vague and often self-contradictory report when it was released in 2020 and continues to do so. RTF’s chief complaint then and now is that the agency is attempting to reach its on-range population goals through aggressive capture and removal without immediately scaling up the implementation of fertility control – the very same approach that has failed for decades.

The agency’s practice of reactionary, roundup-only management will only result in BLM continuing to chase and briefly achieve agency-set “Appropriate Management Levels” on some of the 177 Herd Management Areas in 10 states.

Population modeling by RTF and other stakeholders has shown that immediately implementing fertility control on the range alongside removals is the only way to catch up with herd growth and stabilize BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program.

“BLM is not equipped to provide adequate care for the wild horses and burros that it removes from the range in these large roundups nor is it providing more pasture-like environments that would be more cost-effective than warehousing wild horses in corrals,” DeMayo said. “Congress should call on the agency to take a more moderate approach to removals while dramatically increasing fertility control.”

The House committee wrote that its funding for fertility control should “include public-private partnerships and simultaneous evaluation of multiple fertility control alternatives at a meaningful scale.”

The Senate bill calls for the formation of an interagency “Wild Horse Council” with representation from BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Forest Service and “any other Federal agencies (the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture) deem appropriate.” The House bill also calls for a task force “to bring experts from all Interior bureaus together to address the challenge of wild horses and burros.”

Wrote the Senate committee, “Given the challenges posed by rising horse populations coupled with a degraded range, climate change, and invasive species, the consequences of inaction will have a cascading impact on all plants, animals, and people that share these lands and finite resources. This is a national crisis on our public lands that requires the expertise and responsibilities of various agencies to be brought to bear; BLM should not shoulder the responsibility alone.”

“With any new task force, the devil is in the details,” DeMayo said. “Climate change is not new to the West. It is unfortunate our Department of the Interior did not have a contingency plan in place for rangelands. We urge Congress to push BLM to immediately increase the use of fertility control wherever possible, to work with public-private partnerships on darting programs and herd monitoring, and to use more holistic range management practices will improve habitat for wild horses and all wildlife.”

The Senate committee directed the BLM to brief the committee 45 days after the enactment of the bill and quarterly thereafter on its 2022 activities, “including its strategy for implementing a (fertility control) vaccine initiative.”

Both the Senate and House bills continue a prohibition against BLM killing healthy animals or selling them to slaughter and require that the agency and its contractor abide by its Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program, a set of humane handling standards.

In explaining its increase in funding for the Wild Horse and Burro Program, the House Committee said it was “making a large Federal investment in the wild horse and burro program and wants to ensure that these resources protect the welfare of the wild horses and burros and conserve the range for the habitat it provides to other species and the ecosystem services that are essential to protect human and species health and well-being in the face of climate change.”

Unlike the Senate bill, the House wrote that BLM “needs to focus on achieving a sustainable Appropriate Management Level,” referring to the controversial, agency-set population targets for wild horses and burros.

“We implore Congress to call on BLM to provide a fairer share of rangeland resources to wild horses and burros on their designated Herd Management Areas,” DeMayo said. “That’s both in keeping with the spirit of the 1971 Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act and the wishes of the growing number of Americans who are learning about and who care about America’s wild horses. BLM should also be made to fairly analyze all impacts to public lands instead of isolating the impact from wild horses, as has been historically been the case when analyzing population goals.”

RTF believes that wild horse and burro management must be analyzed and planned on a Herd Management Area by Herd Management Area basis. RTF urges Congress to seek greater transparency for population counts and the controversial setting of “Appropriate Management Level”: the agency’s population goals for each Herd Management Area.

RTF is calling on Congress to look at public lands use through the lens of ecosystem health in a changing climate and with consideration of how AML can potentially be reset in the context of fertility control application. Taking into consideration that if a population of horses or burros is stabilized, AML can be adjusted (sometimes upwards) accordingly. RTF requests that lands be analyzed towards true multiple use and healthy ecosystems operating at Proper Functioning Condition (PFC) and/or rangeland health indicators, and supporting those uses.

“In 2021, BLM continues to pursue an aggressive removal schedule that is especially disheartening in areas where there is a lot of public involvement and horses are more easily tracked,” DeMayo said. “If the agency would take a more moderate approach to removals while scaling up fertility control, especially in those areas, the agency can be better prepared to provide better care to protect our wild horses and burros.”