Why RTF strongly opposes sterilizing wild horses and burros

Photo by Bristol MacDonald

Note: In a recent report to Congress, the Bureau of Land Management included surgical sterilization as option for managing wild horses and burros. On June 6, the House Appropriations Committee voted to approve an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2019 Interior appropriations bill that would give the Secretary of the Interior broad leeway to use such surgeries to reduce the wild horse and burro population, including through the creation of non-reproducing or single-sex herds. On Thursday, June 14, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved an FY19 Interior bill that includes language that would bar BLM from killing healthy wild horses and burros or selling them for slaughter. The Senate appropriators did not include language promoting sterilization like their House colleagues. Both versions of the bill will now proceed to the floor of their respective houses.

Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation strongly opposes a shift toward managing federally protected wild horses and burros through sterilization, a move that would be dangerous for individual animals while threatening the diversity and health of whole herds.

Despite the ready availability of safe, proven fertility control vaccines and public opposition to sterilization, the BLM recently made such costly, unproven surgeries a key component to the management options it presented in a report to Congress.

RTF opposes sterilization for a number of reasons:

No clear vision: This shift is not part of a long-term BLM plan for the future of wild horses and burros. RTF, the Humane Society of the United States, ASPCA and the American Mustang Foundation presented to BLM and members of Congress a 2018 plan to transition to humane, sustainable on-the-range management.

A potentially weakened planning process: BLM’s increased push for sterilization coincides with an effort by the Department of the Interior to streamline the National Environmental Policy Act in ways that could undermine government transparency and public involvement in wild horse and burro management. In a BLM response to a review of NEPA (BLM Report in Response to Secretarial Memorandum on Improving Planning and NEPA Processes and Secretarial Order 3355), the agency listed under wishes for future categorical exclusions wild horse and burro gathers and removals or fertility control programs. This would mean that any attempt to reduce wild horse and burro numbers not necessitate an Environmental Assessment. Further, the report suggests removing public comment consideration for sale limitation and euthanasia, as well as limiting any public commenting process from 30 to 15 days. BLM’s response also suggested limiting Freedom of Information Act requests.

Lack of study: Small scale, experimental sterilization has not happened on any Herd Management Area. To carry out mass sterilization without knowledge of how this would affect long-term health and behavior in herds and bands goes against reasonable animal management principals.

Field spays too dangerous: In 2013, the BLM funded a $1 million scientific report from the National Academy of Sciences National Resource Council (NRC), “Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward.” In the report, the National Research Council (NRC) concluded: “The possibility that ovariectomy may be followed by prolonged bleeding or peritoneal infection makes it inadvisable for field application.” In the past, BLM has proposed studying tubal ligation, which has never been performed on horses; hysteroscopically-guided laser ablation, using a laser to seal oviduct openings, which has never been attempted on wild or domestic mares; and removing both ovaries. This last surgery, ovariectomy via colpotomy, is a rare procedure which removes the ovaries by crushing and pulling them out with a looped-chain medical instrument called an ecraseur. This procedure opens the mares up to: serious risk from infection; evisceration (should intestines come through the incision); and hemorrhaging. There is a high frequency of post-operative complications affiliated with ovariectomy via colpotomy, some of which can be life-threatening. Most domestic horses upon which this surgery is performed are hospitalized for 3 to 7 days and quite carefully monitored post-operatively for signs of hemorrhage (The Horse.com, Ovariectomy, by Michael Ball, DVM, Sept. 2001).

Issues with gelding: While less dangerous, gelding stallions is nonetheless problematic. Gelding a colt that is too young can stunt its growth, while gelding older stallions risks increased bleeding and requires more recovery time. Moreover, it would require gelding all the stallions in a herd, as even a small number of intact stallions can impregnate all the mares in a herd. Surgical sterilization also changes the behavior of wild, free-roaming stallions. “A potential disadvantage of both surgical and chemical castration is loss of testosterone and consequent reduction in or complete loss of male-type behaviors necessary for maintenance of social organization, band integrity, and expression of a natural behavior repertoire,” concluded the NRC.

Unknown cost: There is no known cost associated with sterilizing large numbers of equines in the field.‎ BLM has not presented an analysis for: (1) hiring or contracting the larger number of veterinarians and additional staff sterilization would require, (2) what types of surgeries it would perform, (3) identified needed facilities where horses would be held post-surgery, or (4) the cost of gathering, sorting and transporting captured wild horses and burros. The costs associated with the use of fertility control vaccines are well known by comparison.

Still more delays: Any attempt at mass sterilization will be met with a public backlash and legal action by advocates, delaying efforts to reduce the number of wild horses and burros on the range or the cost of warehousing captured animals even as a safe, proven technology – fertility control vaccines – continues to go all but unused.  Previous attempts by BLM to study sterilization surgeries have proven unpopular with the American people, who polls show overwhelmingly support protections for wild horses and burros, and problematic in court. For example, BLM in 2016 abandoned a plan to spend $348,000 on sterilization experiments on 225 mares, including at least 100 pregnant mares, at its Wild Horse Corral Facility in Hines, Oregon, after public opposition as well as lawsuits filed by at least five nonprofit advocacy organizations that opposed aspects of BLM’s plan to experiment on the very horses it is tasked with protecting under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

In 2017, wild horse advocates prevailed in a U.S. District Court case in which BLM sought to sterilize an entire Idaho herd. The court found that BLM: has a legal mandate to protect horses’ wild free-roaming behaviors and manage wild horses in self-sustaining herds; sterilizing wild horses impacts the herd’s social structure, the wild horses’ behavior, and the public’s interest in preserving and observing those natural wild horse instincts and behaviors; BLM must consider the behavioral and social impacts of sterilization; and that BLM failed to consider the findings the 2013 NRC report that found fertility control is a viable management tool, while surgical sterilization methods are associated with significant health risks and behavioral impacts.

Ready alternative: A cost-effective and humane alternative to capturing and warehousing wild horses – and to the risks and costs of sterilization — has long been available, but it is not being adequately implemented by the BLM. The fertility control vaccine PZP has been shown to be effective and safe. A non-hormonal vaccine, it has minimal effects on behavior and has proven successful across species, including on the range and at RTF’s American Wild Horse Sanctuary, among other projects, for decades. Yet, since 2007, BLM has never spent more than 3.94% of its annual Wild Horse and Burro Program budget allocation on fertility control vaccines. BLM’s failure to implement best management practices resulted in 46,431 wild horses and burros warehoused in government holding facilities, costing taxpayers about $47.5 million annually to house, feed and care for them in 2017.

Take Action

Call your members of Congress at (202) 225-3121 (to find direct numbers, click here).

Urge your senators to:

* Oppose a new, quietly implemented BLM policy increasing the number of wild horses that can be sold to individuals and the frequency of those sales. This move will only lead to the slaughter of wild horses, something Congress has strongly rejected;

* Stand strong in Conference committee on the Senate’s language protecting wild horses and burros and on defunding horse slaughter, if the senator sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee (click to see a list of members).

For senators not on the Senate Appropriations Committee: Ask them to tell members of the Conference committee that constituents do not want them to waiver either on protecting wild horses or defunding horse slaughter.

* Support the SAFE Act (S. 1706) to ban slaughter and the transportation of horses for slaughter.

Urge your congressional representative to:

* Oppose a new, quietly implemented BLM increasing the number of wild horses that can be sold to individuals and the frequency of those sales. This move will only lead to the slaughter of wild horses, something Congress has strongly rejected;

* Oppose the House version of the FY19 Interior Appropriations bill because it contains an amendment allowing for the mass sterilization of wild horses and burros; instead, ask your representative to support Senate language on wild horses being considered by the House and Senate Conference committee, instead;

* Oppose the FY19 Agriculture Appropriations bill because it does not include the horse slaughter inspection defund language; instead, ask your representative to support the Senate language being considered by the House and Senate Conference committee, instead;

* Support the SAFE Act (H.R. 113) to ban slaughter and the transportation of horses for slaughter;

* Support the Horse Transportation Safety Act (H.R. 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.

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