By Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
Published: Friday, February 1, 2013
The Bureau of Land Management today issued long-awaited guidance to improve how wild horses and burros are gathered and treated on Western rangelands, an effort to appease animal rights groups who have called the agency's roundups inhumane.
BLM's "comprehensive animal welfare policy" covers everything from how helicopters may be used to round up wild herds to when it is appropriate to use electric prods to coax horses into corrals.
The agency also released separate guidance on how the public and media can observe gathers and how to improve both internal and external communications.
The new steps come as BLM faces pressure from lawmakers and the public to improve management of the 37,000 wild horses that roam nearly a dozen Western states. It follows a policy announced in early January designed to ensure wild horses are not sold for slaughter (Greenwire, Jan. 7).
"These changes are part of our ongoing commitment to ensure the humane treatment of animals that are gathered from our public rangelands," acting BLM Director Mike Pool said in a statement. "In addition, increasing public transparency is a cornerstone of this administration's approach to our work."
By law, BLM must both protect and contain the wild horses on public rangelands, while also protecting the lands for other users including endangered species and ranchers. The agency estimates there are about 11,000 more horses than the range can sustain, meaning many must be gathered and held in short- and long-term holding facilities, which already hold about 47,000 horses and consume a growing portion of the program's budget.
Animal welfare groups including the Humane Society and American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign and some lawmakers have long criticized the roundups as inhumane and a drain on taxpayer dollars. Advocates often videotape gathers and post clips on YouTube highlighting cases in which they say horses are being abused, garnering sensational headlines.
"If this policy is put into action and culture, it promises to be a sea change in the fate of the wild horse program," said Holly Hazard, senior vice president of programs and innovations for the Humane Society of the United States, in an email this morning.
Hazard said BLM appears to have adopted Humane Society recommendations involving the treatment of foals, handing aids, electric prods and the balance of gathering demands and horse welfare. But she said she is disappointed the agency chose to allow contractors and field personnel discretion on issues involving temperature and how far and fast horses are forced to run.
"We are hopeful that this is a living document and that some of its shortfalls will be addressed in subsequent amendments," she said.
The welfare policy says helicopters shall not contact horses, that animals will not be whipped or beaten, that electric prods (hotshots) will not be routinely used and that field personnel will accommodate animals that are weak or struggling to keep up with the rest of the herd, among other provisions.
"It is expected that animals may be tired, sweaty and breathing heavily on arrival at a trap, but they should not be herded in a manner that results in exhaustion or collapse," the policy states.
In general, BLM will use "the best available science, husbandry and handling practices" and make improvements when possible, the memorandum says.
Tom Gorey, a spokesman for BLM, in the past has said accidents are unavoidable when working with wild animals, but they can be minimized.
"We don't promise gathers where there are no incidents, it's not possible," he said. "But we are committed to a humane program."
BLM's three other new policies on media and public access, incident command, and communications and reporting can be found here.
The agency is also working to increase its use of fertility drugs to slow the growth of herds, which can double in size every four years if not kept in check by natural predators.