Wild Horse Advisory Board eyes drought, fertility control; calls for adoption program change

/ Hearings, In The News, News
Photo by Meg Frederick

The National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board on Thursday voted to approve seven recommendations on subjects ranging for planning for the ongoing drought in the West to the Bureau of Land Management’s controversial adoption program to implementing fertility control.

The nine-member volunteer advisory board, which met virtually, makes recommendations to the BLM and U.S. Forest Service regarding wild horse and burro management but does not control policy.

Faced with extreme drought conditions, the board voted unanimously that BLM “immediately develop and implement as necessary an emergency action plan including the capacity to gather and house an unprecedented number of equids.” 

The board’s recommendation emphasized that the intent was to “restore a thriving natural ecological balance, prevent further range degradation, and provide for habitat that exists and persists in the future.”

The board’s chair, Return to Freedom biologist Celeste Carlisle, said that members were concerned that the BLM may not be ready for the scale of response needed in a worse-case scenario.

“This is so the Bureau is ready to respond when there are welfare issues for those horses and burros,” she said. “If the Bureau gets into a pattern of just delivering water where there is not water, and there is no more to the plan than that, what happens when the forage is gone and there’s no more precipitation to grow more forage? You get yourself into an untenable situation.”

The board also addressed the BLM’s Adoption Incentive Program, which has come under fire since a New York Times story revealed adopters were pocketing the $1,000 incentive then auctioning horses off for slaughter. 

The board could not agree on whether to recommend a pause in the adoption program. Instead, it voted to approve a statement of concern and to recommend that BLM pursue non-cash incentives.

“It would have been great if the entire board said there should be a pause in the program, but I was glad that the board said, ‘Let’s get away from this cash idea,’” Carlisle said.

Carlisle said that broadly speaking the recommendations made during the virtual meeting were aimed at setting BLM for a paradigm shift away from the agency’s decades-long practice of capturing and removing wild horses and burros and toward the use of safe, proven and humane fertility control to slow herd growth. 

That included a recommendation that the BLM and USFS implement a robust program of fertility control alongside gathers in areas well above the agencies’ population targets. Last year, BLM treated just 735 mares compared to removing 10,824 wild horses and burros from the range.

“That recommendation is toward hope,” Carlisle said. “This is an attempt to say, ‘We’ve got to be able to hand Congress a success story.’ I know there are successful darting areas (working with volunteers), but we need to show Congress that BLM can successfully scale up so that Congress will continue to fund fertility control.”

The full list of recommendations:

Recommendation 1: The current and likely continuance of the unprecedented drought situation in much of the Intermountain West and Desert Southwest, has revealed the need for a viable, catastrophic WH&B contingency plan for this and future protracted drought scenarios. Board recommends BLM immediately develop and implement as necessary an emergency action plan including the capacity to gather and house an unprecedented number of equids, coincidentally contacting FEMA and Interior regarding possible funding, and issuing an emergency declaration. The intent of this is to restore a thriving natural ecological balance, prevent further range degradation, and provide for habitat that exists and persists in the future. 

Vote: Unanimous 

Recommendation 2: Board recommends BLM identify two (2) HMAs, one horse and one burro, and Forest Service identifies 2-3 territories, to implement a comprehensive gather-contraception program based on the best population models, to meet established AMLs and demonstrate successful planning/ management outcomes. 

Vote: Unanimous 

Recommendation 3: A comprehensive and standardized “gather preparation and evaluation” brochure and on-site presentation should be developed by BLM to be shared with the public observing gathers. This presentation would include but not be limited to: 

  1. A. What is normal behavior/physiology for horses and burros 
  2. B. What is going to happen and when during the gather 
  3. C. What the end result could be (ie. Mortality and morbidity statistics) 
  4. D. Process for immediate debriefing participating public post-gather 

Vote: Unanimous 

Alternate Statement: The Board is aware of the public’s concerns and appreciates the thorough investigation and subsequent outcome of BLM’s efforts to properly ensure the welfare of adopted horses and burros to the best of their ability/to closure. 

Vote: Unanimous 

Recommendation 4: The Board recommends pursuing alternative, non-cash incentives to ensure a high standard of welfare for adopted wild horses and burros. 

Vote: 8-1

Recommendation 5: Recommended that Board members attend WHB activities in order to gain a better understanding of how all portions of the program are implemented to utilize them to educate and communicate with outside stakeholders. 

Vote: Unanimous

Recommendation 5.5: Recommended that BLM utilize and involve Board members based on their individual expertise on an ongoing basis. 

Vote: Unanimous 

Recommendation 6: In order to improve the WHB program’s efficiencies and coordination, especially the ability to respond to emergency situations, the Board recommends that an outside (non-government) third party be retained to study, identify and make best practice recommendations for systemic improvements in the WHB program. 

Vote: Unanimous 

Recommendation 7: The Board recommends that BLM leadership direct BLM state directors to comply with national strategic WHB program plans and standardized data collections methods. 

Vote: Unanimous