AWHC Youth Leader on BLM Management of Wild Horses on Public Lands

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Hello again, everyone. Bailey here. If you read my last post, you may remember a very special horse from my local 4H, Shiloh. Shiloh was once a wild mustang in Wyoming, and at a young age, he was captured by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). To understand why the mustang population is in jeopardy, it is important to first understand what the BLM is, how it became involved with the wild horse population in the United States, and what the BLM’s responsibilities (with regard to the wild horses) are at the present time.

The BLM, a division of the Department of the Interior, oversees 245 million acres of public land in 12 western states. Its stated mission is to “sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America's public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

With passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, the BLM was assigned the responsibility of protecting, managing, and controlling wild horse and burro populations on federal rangeland that it administers. Several years later, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 commissioned the BLM to allow for the “multiple use” of public lands, which includes managing both the wild horse and burro populations and the grazing of privately-owned livestock.

Although the BLM is supposed to manage the public lands for both wild horses and burros as well as privately-owned livestock, its priority is the latter.  For example, while the BLM allows only 26,700 wild horses and burros, the Appropriate Management Level, on public lands, it permits over 1,500,000 livestock to graze there.  In some places, cattle and sheep outnumber wild horses up to 50 to 1. Also, livestock grazing is authorized on 155 million of BLM land but less than 30 million acres are allocated to the horses and burros.

Besides the significant discrepancy in the amount of land privately-owned livestock use compared to that allocated for the wild horses are the nominal fees associated with commercial ranching on BLM public land. For example, in 1966, the fee per calf/cow pair was just $1.23/month. In 2016, the fee was $2.11/month, yet it dropped to $1.87/month in 2017. In 2018, the fee was set even lower at only $1.41/month! If adjusted for inflation, the $1.23 rate from 1966 would be nearly 7 times the $1.41/month cattle ranchers are paying today – equating to $9.75!  Additionally, grazing fees on private lands are substantially more than those on public lands, costing over $14/month on average, but ranging up to nearly $30/month. Therefore, the BLM is not only grossly undercharging ranchers compared to fees from previous years but also compared to fees on privately-owned lands.

Clearly, there is little incentive for ranchers to do anything but lobby hard to continue grazing cattle and sheep on our public lands and push for continued removal of horses who have been an integral part of the ecosystem since well before privately-owned livestock overtook the west.

Unfortunately, the BLM complies.  Every year, it rounds up thousands and thousands of “excess horses.” Between 2012 and 2018, 32,471 of these symbols of America’s western heritage lost their homes, families, and freedom.  (https://www.blm.gov/programs/wild-horse-and-burro/about-the-program/program-data) Although the BLM’s own Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program for Wild Horse and Burro Gathers Standards (CAWP) state that “There should be no excessive noise (such as constant yelling) or sudden activity causing wild horses to become unnecessarily flighty, disturbed or agitated,” helicopters are widely used during roundups, sometimes getting close enough to touch the wild horses as family bands are torn apart.

There are a multitude of roundup videos depicting these deplorable practices. One such video of the Beaty Butte Herd Management Area in Oregon is linked here.

About 1 minute and 15 seconds into the video, with your volume on full, you will not only hear the helicopter but see how close to the horses it gets.  About the use of helicopters, the BLM’s CAWP also states that “the appropriate herding distance and rate of movement must be determined on a case-by-case basis considering the weakest or smallest animal in the group (e.g., foals, pregnant mares, or horses that are weakened by body condition, age, or poor health) and the range and environmental conditions present,” but horses, including pregnant mares, older horses, and young foals, are often stampeded for long distances. The result is trauma, injuries, and even death.

After being rounded up, the horses are sent to BLM short-term and then long-term holding facilities.  Besides costing American taxpayers almost $50 million each year, the holding corrals are overcrowded with almost 48,000 horses who have been removed. (https://www.blm.gov/programs/wild-horse-and-burro/about-the-program/program-data) Most lack adequate care, such as shade and access to some type of sprinkler system to help combat heat in the warmer months. While some of these horses may be adopted by the public or sent to eco-sanctuaries, many will likely live out the rest of their lives in these conditions – so foreign to their former lives.

Regarding adoption, the BLM holds several events that offer trained and untrained horses each year, but they are not well publicized, and most are located west of the Mississippi River.  More recently, the BLM has partnered with several organization, including the Mustang Heritage Foundation, to increase adoptions. However, despite these efforts, adoption rates are not keeping up with removals. For example, in 2018 alone, 9,749 horses were removed, and only 2,459 were adopted. (https://www.blm.gov/programs/wild-horse-and-burro/about-the-program/program-data)

Increasingly, the BLM is also utilizing certified eco-sanctuaries that provide lifetime homes to horses who would otherwise be stockpiled in holding. The first of these eco-sanctuaries is the Deerwood Ranch Wild Horse EcoSanctuary near Laramie, Wyoming. With 4,700 acres, this family-owned ranch at one time was used for raising cattle. They now care for 300 wild horses. The second certified eco-sanctuary is in Oklahoma. On 4,000 privately owned acres, the Mowdy Ranch is home to 300 wild horses. In the summer of 2016, The Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary was opened.  A public-private partnership between the BLM and ranch owners near Lander, Wyoming, this 900-acre ranch will provide a home for up to 150 horses removed from our public rangelands.

While each eco-sanctuary not only offers visitors the chance to tour the property and learn more about the American Mustang but also decreases the cost of lifetime care for the BLM, the horses are kept in same-sex herds and a live a life starkly different than the one they had in the wild. More important, like adoptions, the eco-sanctuaries do not provide a long-term solution in that the BLM will continue to roundup and remove wild horses from the range to fill up the holding corrals.

Fortunately, there is a better way! In its 2013 review of the BLM wild horses and burro program, the National Academy of Sciences warned that roundups actually facilitate high population growth rates on the range and are “expensive and unproductive for BLM and the public it serves.”  Instead, it recommended the use safe and sustainable fertility control, one of which is Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP) for mares that has 30 years of science supporting its safety and efficacy.

By implementing PZP, the BLM can not only limit the growth of wild horse population but also eliminate the need for massive roundups and removals of wild horses and burros from their natural habitat. For instance, in the Spring Creek Basin Herd Management Area (HMA) in Colorado, no removals have occurred in recent years because of a PZP program that is administered by one trained volunteer in partnership with the BLM.   (more information on this work be found on the AWHC Facebook page and the Aug 27 post). The cost of the PZP vaccination is also significantly less than the costs associated with roundups and the warehousing captured horses in holding facilities. Therefore, it is both a humane and cost-effective option for wild horse management.

Yet, the BLM has used PZP in a limited capacity.  In 2017, it vaccinated only 777 mares, and in 2018, that numbered dropped to 702 mares. (https://www.blm.gov/programs/wild-horse-and-burro/about-the-program/program-data)

Overall, the BLM needs to work harder to ensure the more humane and economical management of the wild horse populations in the western United States. I believe we have a moral imperative to save our mustang herds by eliminating roundups and the warehousing of tens of thousands of these majestic animals at taxpayer expense. In my opinion, we do not have the right to obliterate these living legacies when, in fact, we have the ability to allow the mighty mustang to stay wild, utilizing birth control and natural selection to keep the population in check.

To help you spread the message about the need for improved management practices, I have created a presentation which corresponds with this blog post. You can access the presentation here. I urge you all to take the time to stay informed about the plight of the American Mustang. Change is possible, but only if the public will step up to express the need for improvements with the current program. Please join me in making your voice heard to stop the current cruel practices and instead implement safer, more humane treatment of these iconic symbols of the American west.

Until next time,

Bailey