Senate hearing: Broad support for safe, humane fertility control for wild horses

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Three Feathers, Gambler and Cowen photographed at RTF’s Lompoc, Calif., headquarters sanctuary by Kaitlyn Toay

To watch a full video of the Senate subcommittee hearing, click here: https://bit.ly/2Y5bLew (Note: The hearing begins at the 17:28 mark. The hearing was delayed for an unrelated floor vote that begins at 1:07:45 in the video. The hearing reconvenes at 1:34:22). 

The value of safe, proven and fertility control as a politically viable tool that can move the management of America’s wild horses and burros in a humane, sustainable direction received both its best reception and broadest range of support in Congress, ever, on Tuesday.

There was a rare show of agreement on the subject from representatives of the animal welfare, livestock industry, local Nevada government and the Bureau of Land Management in a hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining.

Much of the discussion centered around a joint draft proposal to Congress supported by Return to Freedom, the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States, along with a diverse group of other rangeland stakeholders, including livestock interests and local and state government representatives.

Common ground

The proposal seeks to break a political stalemate that has worsened as the BLM has continued its 40-year practice of capturing and removing wild horses and burros from the range, placing an ever-growing number of horses in jeopardy.

Nancy Perry, ASPCA’s senior vice president for government affairs, called the status quo of removing and warehousing wild horses and burros “antiquated and expensive” and called “for a shift away from a reactive approach to a proactive one.”

“The status quo is broken,” Perry said. “It is putting our wild horses and burros in jeopardy and it’s costly for taxpayers … It is our responsibility collectively to manage these herds, and it would not be fair to force them to pay the price of our failure with their lives.”

Perry ran through a long list of almost three decades of congressional and agency reports detailing the efficacy of humane fertility control vaccines and calling for their use.

If supported by Congress, the proposal would see the first large infusion of funding specifically for fertility control, allowing for the phasing out of roundups as the primary tool for managing wild horses.

Steve Tryon, BLM deputy assistant director for resources and planning, confirmed the agency planned to increase the number of wild horses and burros removed from the range beginning in Fiscal Year 2020. Under the joint proposal, fertility control would be administered alongside those BLM gathers in order to allow for fertility control to catch up with reproduction.

By the fifth year, under the model, the number of wild horses being removed from the range would be roughly equal with adoption demand, allowing BLM to not only begin phasing out roundups but realizing taxpayer savings on holding facilities.

The new funding would come with key strings attached by congressional appropriators, including providing critical protections against BLM killing tens of thousands of healthy wild horses in government holding facilities or selling them without restriction, often a pipeline to foreign slaughterhouses.

“Sounds like they’ve given you a turn-key solution,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-ND, to Tryon of the BLM, at one point.

Questioning BLM

Tryon said that BLM did have the authority under the law to implement the proposal, but that moving forward would depend on funding.

“It’s a level-of-intensity question,” he said. “So can we increase fertility control and also increase gather and removal? That’s sort of the sweet spot. With the $80 million appropriation that we’re operating under currently, we’d have to scale back some of the other gathers in order to have the intensity of operations that would be necessary to have that widespread fertility control. So, yes, we can do it, it’s a matter of scale.”

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-NV, asked Tryon why the agency had spent less than 1 percent of its program budget on fertility control in recent years. Tryon said that BLM felt it didn’t make sense to return any gathered horses back out if the Herd Management Areas were significantly above the agency’s “Appropriate Management Level.”

“But at the rate you’re going you’re never going to reach that AML level. It just doesn’t make sense to me,” Cortez Masto said. “Why wouldn’t you change your tactics if you know what you’re doing is quite frankly swimming upstream?”

Said Tryon, “Generally, the BLM is supportive of fertility control and it is something that, within the constraints of our appropriations … We would like to use additional fertility control and we would like to increase the amount of removals.”

Ranchers back vaccines

Voices supportive of the livestock industry that as recently as last year lobbied for wild horses to be euthanized or sold without restriction are now supporting the non-lethal proposal because action needs to be taken.

Witnesses at the hearing included J.J. Goicoechea, chairman of the Eureka County (Nev.) Board of Commissioners and the state’s veterinarian, and Ethan Lane of the National Horse and Burro Rangeland Management Coalition, an industry group that includes the American Farm Bureau and National Beef Cattlemen’s Association.

Goicoechea said that the county he represents has called for euthanizing wild horses or selling them without restriction: “We have compromised and agreed to the non-lethal management approaches set forth (in the proposal).”

Said Lane, “In my end of the world, there are folks that at a proposal like this and say, ‘Gosh, it doesn’t go far enough,’ but that’s the nature of a compromise.”

He and Eric Thacker, a Utah State University associate professor of wildland resources, said many Herd Management Areas were in need of “triage,” with Thacker estimating a hypothetical 500,000 wild horses could be on the range by 2030 if neither roundups nor fertility control was used.

A “big hit” of consistent funding is necessary and long-range planning needed to make progress, Lane said.

Goicoechea and Lane joined Perry in telling senators that they saw the use of fertility control as a step forward.

Where they differed was on pursuing other ways to curb population growth.

Sterilization surgery debate

BLM, Lane, and Goicoechea all favored the surgical sterilization of mares, with Goicoechea saying that the landscape of Nevada – “ground zero” for wild horses, in his words — often makes it difficult to round up horses, especially repeatedly if fertility control is to be applied.

Nevertheless, the proposal, which calls for safe, effective and humane fertility control, does not include surgical sterilization by definition: “The BLM has not proven the safety and efficacy of that through a study,” Goicoechea said.

Perry warned that surgical sterilization of wild mares would remain a “lightning rod” for wild horse advocates because of concerns over the safety of mares at risk of bleeding, infection and death. Unhandled mares would be much more difficult to contain than domestic horses, may well have a foal at their sides and have only a short window when they are not pregnant.

Moreover, she added, there are few veterinarians trained in the surgery given the large number of surgeries that would need to be done in order to affect population growth.

“These are concerns that a lot of advocates have, and, again, especially when you juxtapose that, Senator, with the volumes of material that show the efficacy and safeness of the vaccinations that are available and how they are more long-lasting now – we don’t even really need to be looking in this direction,” Perry said.

For example, the vaccine PZP-22 can be effective out to five years.

“We are not talking about a brand-new technology. It is currently available,” Perry said. “It is scalable to the proportions that we need … What I would hate to see is for us to chase something that isn’t practical, that is highly controversial, and that will cause great delay because one of the things we’re working against is recruitment every year, new population growth.

“What we need to is get on the ground with the tools we have now rather than wait for something to become tested and effective.”

Crunching numbers

This spring, BLM estimated there were 88,090 wild horses and burro on the range, well over its national “Appropriate Management Level” of 26,690, with another 48,375 captured animals in government holding facilities and leased pastures at a cost of more $49.8 million – 61% of the program’s budget allocation.

While Return to Freedom and other advocates take issue with the AML figure and question the scientific rigor behind on-range population figures, the push to use lethal tools has grown steadily stronger, especially since 2016, appearing in administration budget proposals, funding bill amendments, and recommendations from the National Wild Horse Advisory Board.

At the same time, the effort to diminish the usefulness of fertility control as a solution, despite years of peer-reviewed science, gained traction in Washington over the past three years.

Combined with lawmaker concerns about the cost of BLM’s program and the growing number of horses on and off the range, RTF and its animal-welfare colleagues felt the status quo would eventually lead to horses being killed, sold to slaughter, or both, by the thousands.

Working with HSUS and the ASPCA, RTF set out to offer a non-lethal proposal built on moving BLM to fertility control, working with ecologists to model horse populations and an economist to examine the cost. They found that removals could be phased out within 5-10 years if fertility control was implemented alongside BLM’s planned roundups and that taxpayer money could be saved in the long run – and that the work could be done under existing law.

Last year, BLM removed 11,472 wild horses and burros from the range while treating only 702 mares with fertility control. The agency rounded up wild horses year after year – some 270,000 since the passage of the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act – while failing to address reproduction, never investing even as much as 4% of its annual budget on fertility control.

If Congress funds the proposal, it must also provide proper oversight and ensure public transparency of a changing BLM program. Lawmakers must hold the BLM and other agencies accountable for managing wild horses and burros in accordance with the law and the wishes of Congress, as expressed through the annual appropriations process.

The proposal calls for Congress to demand regular reports on the status of implementation. In the language recently approved as part of the House’s Interior appropriations process, BLM would be required to provide quarterly progress reports to Congress.

Read RTF’s written testimony to the subcommittee.

Read more about the joint proposal to Congress, including Myths & Facts

Read more about why RTF strongly opposes surgical sterilization of mares

Donate to RTF’s Wild Horse Defense Fund, which fuels our advocacy and selective litigation efforts

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