Congress tasks BLM with fixing wild horse problem

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Scott Streater, E&E News

February 14, 2019

Congress is directing the Bureau of Land Management to go back to the drawing board and come up with solutions to control growing wild horse and burro herds that threaten to trample tens of millions of acres of federal rangelands.

At issue is language in the spending package unveiled yesterday that's designed to avert another partial government shutdown by finalizing seven unfinished fiscal 2019 spending bills, including the funding bill covering Interior-EPA (see related story). The legislation would appropriate $80.5 million for BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program — about $5 million more than fiscal 2018 enacted levels.

The spending package language notes the "financial and political challenges of controlling wild horse and burro populations," exemplified in the enormous costs of caring for nearly 50,000 wild horses and burros that have been removed from federal rangelands. BLM estimates it spends two-thirds of its annual Wild Horse and Burro Program budget to feed and care for the thousands of animals in off-site corrals and holding pens.

But it also states that "significant management changes need to be made within the near future in order to control costs, improve range conditions, and humanely manage wild horse and burro populations."

On that point, appropriators direct BLM in the bill to conduct "additional analysis" and to submit a report on its findings to Congress "no later than 180 days after enactment of this Act."

"The Bureau is expected to continue evaluating its internal policies, procedures, and regulations to reduce costs and administrative burdens, as well as researching and developing appropriate, humane protocols for fertility control methods, including sterilization, and improve its contracting for off-range holdings," it states.

The bill also states that BLM "will include in its fiscal year 2020 budget request a proposal that outlines its proposed strategy and the funding necessary for implementation, including anticipated out-year estimates."

But BLM last spring submitted a detailed report mandated by Congress — titled "Management Options for a Sustainable Wild Horse and Burro Program" — that outlined four options, including one that would grant the bureau the flexibility to sell or transfer animals without limitation, and to euthanize some animals (E&E News PM, April 26, 2018).

Other options included permanent sterilization of captured mares and increased roundups of animals from federal rangelands.

The BLM report did not recommend any option. Rather, it requested that "Congress examine each of the options and advise on which of the tools it deems most suitable for addressing this urgent challenge."

Congress has never formally moved on any of the options in the report, though BLM officials have said that individual congressional members and their staff have discussed the report with them in private.

The Interior-EPA fiscal 2019 funding package includes language forbidding "the destruction of healthy, unadopted, wild horses and burros in the care of the Bureau or its contractors" (Greenwire, Feb. 14).

Meanwhile, the number of wild horses and burros on federal rangelands could soon reach 100,000 — well above the 26,715 animals that BLM estimates is the maximum number the rangeland can sustain without causing damage to vegetation, soils and other resources.

BLM declined to discuss the request for another report and what new information the bureau could offer to Congress on addressing growing wild horse and burro herds. "We do not comment on pending legislation," Derrick Henry, a BLM spokesman, said in an emailed response to questions from E&E News.

But the bureau's dealings with Congress on the issue have raised frustrations. BLM officials said last fall at a meeting of the bureau's National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board that they still don't know what Congress wants the agency to do about the options outlined in last year's report (Greenwire, Oct. 11, 2018).

"We have no idea if we'll even get a response," Bruce Rittenhouse, acting chief of BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program, told the advisory panel.

What Congress wants

While Congress states in the latest funding package its "appreciation" for the April 2018 report, the spending legislation says that "additional analysis is needed," though few details are mentioned.

Instead, the report refers to "House Report 115-765," which was included in a June Interior-EPA fiscal 2019 spending package that was not approved, helping cause the monthlong partial government shutdown that ended last month.

That report by the House Appropriations Committee, which BLM is to use as guidance in its new analysis, called for more analysis from the bureau "that identifies factors for success, total funding requirements, and expected results on potential options."

Those options, the committee wrote, include removing animals from the range; offering $1,000 to those who adopt a wild horse or burro; and the increased use of sterilization, including "the use of short-term fertility control" such as porcine zona pellucida, or PZP, which renders mares infertile for roughly a year.

BLM has said this is not an efficient way to control populations, because it requires going back each year and darting animals spread across thousands of acres.

"The Committee further directs the Bureau to immediately begin designing the regulatory framework and technical protocols for an active sterilization program," the committee report says. "The Bureau should ensure it considers the health and welfare of individual wild horses and burros and their populations and evaluates the costs of such a program."

BLM has attempted to test permanent sterilization techniques, including one method last fall — called ovariectomy via colpotomy — that involves removing the mares' ovaries. Contracted veterinarians would have performed the surgeries on as many as 104 mares rounded up from the Warm Springs Herd Management Area in Oregon (E&E News PM, Aug. 23, 2018).

But a federal judge in Oregon issued a preliminary injunction against the research in response to a lawsuit from advocacy groups (Greenwire, Nov. 5, 2018). BLM within days of the ruling abandoned the research effort.

The report also states BLM should analyze "expected results" of Congress allowing the bureau to "humanely" euthanize "animals older than 10 years of age."

Wild horse advocates said Congress was correct in the current funding package to request more analysis from BLM.

"Last year, the BLM failed to deliver the 'humane and politically viable' options requested by Congress, and instead devised an irresponsible plan that was counter to public opinion," the American Wild Horse Campaign said in an emailed statement to E&E News.

The request for a new report "is an opportunity for the BLM to deliver a publicly accepted, humane and scientifically backed proposal for managing these cherished animals."

Ethan Lane, senior executive director of the Public Lands Council and of federal lands for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, disagrees.

Lane blamed Congress for failing to "fix the wild horse problem that they themselves have created through appropriations riders," such as prohibitions against unlimited sale.

"Their request now for additional details would seem to indicate their desire for one solution palatable to all stakeholders, rather than the hard choices" outlined in BLM's original report to Congress, he said. "The simple fact is, resolution of this ecological and animal welfare disaster will require hard choices (and tough votes) no matter how thorough the additional report may be."