Setting the record straight on ‘The Path Forward’

/ Staff Blog

RTF still steering toward fertility control in effort to bring decades of BLM roundups to an end

Ranger, a stallion, photographed on the Sand Wash Basin Herd Management Area in Colorado. Photo by Meg Frederick.

“The Path Forward” is not a law, policy or program — and it has nothing to do with the Bureau of Land Management’s current aggressive removal of wild horses and burros from the range. BLM is following its own plan.

Return to Freedom supports these tenets of The Path Forward:

  • Dialogue with those on all sides of the issue;
  • An increase in proven, safe and humane fertility control with the goal of ending BLM’s decades-long practice of capturing and warehousing wild horses and burros;
  • An increase in public-private partnerships, largely to work with the public to identify and track the herds and implement fertility control;
  • An increase in range restoration to benefit all wildlife and the ecosystem;
  • Moving wild horses and burros stuck in holding corrals to more natural and cost-effective pastures.

The Path Forward was a non-lethal wild horse management alternative that was presented to Congress in 2019. It was the beginning of a much-needed dialogue between divergent associations and groups that have a stake in how our public lands are managed. It was created with ecologists and economists and attempted to model what it would actually take to put into place a viable and sustainable program of safe, proven and humane fertility control. It was not a “plan,” but rather a starting point for a conversation about how to implement a systemic paradigm shift: increasing fertility control while steadily decreasing roundups and ending them within 10 years as the main management method for wild horses and burros on the range.

It’s important to remember what was happening in 2017 and why the stakeholders began discussions and offered The Path Forward to Congress: The House of Representatives voted to allow the Bureau of Land Management to euthanize tens of thousands of “excess” wild horses and burros.

Thankfully, the Senate did not agree. However, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, both in the House and the Senate, made it clear that we needed to find common-ground solutions with other public land stakeholders, or soon the lives of tens of thousands of wild horses and burros would be at stake. We needed to begin a dialogue with a diverse group of stakeholders if we wanted to protect America’s wild horses and burros on our public lands. BLM also made clear that it planned to increase roundups and removals due to the increase in wild horse and burro populations — again, not something created by The Path Forward or its goal.

Congressional representatives, tired of the back-and-forth arguing of very divergent stakeholders and the contentiousness surrounding wild horse and burro management, demanded that we all do something different and that we find a way to do it across the aisle, as it were. We’ve done so, and we will continue to do so. This collaborative process, and the non-lethal framework it developed, resulted in Congress providing funding for fertility control for the very first time. It is important for all of us to work together to hold BLM accountable to utilize the increase in funding to create the infrastructure needed to implement a sustainable fertility control program now.

Some misconceptions about The Path Forward document include that it points to large removals to get to “Appropriate Management Level” (BLM’s set population goal) and send wild horses to slaughter; that stakeholders were paid; that it supports surgical sterilizations; and is the reason why roundups are happening. You can see simply by looking at the recent history of removals that the roundups today are not the result of The Path Forward conversations and that the BLM is and will continue to remove horses until a viable shift takes place.

Recently, some have conflated The Path Forward with a very different BLM report to Congress published about a year later.

In 2020, BLM published its own report to Congress that it continues to follow. RTF spoke out critically about the report, calling it unclear and inconsistent on even fundamental issues, yet some advocates are referring to the BLM report and The Path Forward as being the same. This is inaccurate, irresponsible and causes unnecessary confusion.

The differences between the BLM report and The Path Forward are dramatic. For example, The Path Forward showed that scaling up significant levels of fertility control, alongside targeted gathers in areas that are environmentally stressed, is needed to stabilize and then slow population growth rates on the range. The model does not show BLM reaching Appropriate Management Level. Instead, it shows how to stabilize and slow on-range populations.

(Other misconceptions include some referring to a draft document called “10 years to AML” that was given to various advocacy organizations for their feedback and greatly revised as The Path Forward. Some continue to misstate that The Path Forward supports removals down to the Bureau of Land Management’s arbitrarily low Appropriate Management Level. It does NOT, and this important exclusion is in no small part because we were at the table when The Path Forward was being discussed.)

The Path Forward did not seek to promote roundups, only to take into account the increasingly large roundups that BLM was pursuing under the law and with the support of Congress. The Path Forward modeled how if fertility control was correctly and aggressively applied alongside BLM’s planned roundups, removals could be steadily reduced and eventually replaced with minimally intrusive on-range management in many areas.

In contrast, the BLM report fell back on nearly 50 years of capture-and-removal without immediately scaling up fertility control. The BLM report focuses on large annual removals of 20,000-30,000 animals while other portions call for 18,000-20,000 removed each year until reaching AML between the 15thand 18thyear of implementation.

Another example: The Path Forward (and, later, Congress) called for “safe, proven and humane” methods of curbing population growth; the BLM report left on the table the surgical sterilization of wild mares and burro jennies. In 2020, RTF sued BLM (and won) over a plan to sterilize wild mares, and the BLM has since dropped the plan.

RTF and its colleagues continue to urge Congress to hold BLM’s feet to the fire on the implementation of fertility control. Our effort has always been and will always be about protecting the lives of wild horses and burros.

This is why we were at the table having difficult discussions with stakeholders with very different opinions and agendas – because we knew what the absence of pro-horse voices would mean. This is why we continue to push for humane tools like fertility control in discussions intended to achieve non-lethal, humane management and economically viable solutions that protect wild horses and burros from euthanasia and unrestricted sale to slaughter, while finally phasing out BLM’s decades-long practice of capture-and-removal. Presidential leadership, congressional majorities, agency heads all change, making it critical to keep these conversations with diverse stakeholders going about the future of America’s wild horses and burros.

It’s easy for advocates to demand fertility control. It’s harder to figure out how to change the course of a veritable battleship of a program and actually implement fertility control at meaningful-enough levels, with infrastructure in place to support this good work, and with realistic but daring goals.

We can dig in and stand in our corners, or castigate other organizations for doing things differently or in a manner we don’t understand or that we find to be uncomfortable. Or we can roll up our sleeves and work well with others on what we agree on so that positive change occurs for the horses and burros.

RTF has made a choice to continue to fight where it matters and find where we can work together with all stakeholders, advocates and agencies.

RTF’s focus remains primarily on these tenets of The Path Forward: Increasing proven, safe and humane fertility control on the range, increasing public-private partnerships, largely to work with the public to identify and track the herds and implement fertility control, range restoration projects to benefit all wildlife and the ecosystem, and moving wild horses and burros from corrals to more natural and cost-effective pastures.

Read more about The Path Forward.