2018 National BLM Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board Meeting:
More Scapegoating - More Mismanagement
Between October 9-11, 2018 the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) held its Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board Meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The Advisory Board is supposed to be comprised of stakeholders who bring diverse backgrounds, experiences, and expertise to the protection and management of our nation’s federally-protected wild horses and burros who live on public lands. However, as expected, livestock and ranching interests were overwhelmingly represented on the nine-member Board appointed by the BLM, leaving little room for the voices of the 80% of Americans who support the humane management of our wild herds.
Not surprisingly, given this imbalance, the focus of the meeting was decidedly on the “overpopulation” of wild horses and burros and the need for massive removals and lethal means to preserve the ecology of the rangelands and the health of the horses and burros themselves. Yet, during the entire three-day meeting, the Advisory Board never ever discussed the over 1.5 million private livestock grazing on public land, their impacts on forage, water, and other natural resources, or a reduction in their numbers to protect the range and provide wild herds with a fair share of resources on the small amount of public lands designated as wild horse and burro habitat.
Although the Board somewhat acknowledged the role of recent wildfires, most were unrelenting in their claims that wild horses and burros were primarily responsible for the destruction of the public rangelands that resulted in everything from economic loss to ranching community to displacement of other wildlife, including sage grouse.
“We are well past the point of no return,” argued Board member Jim French, referring to the perceived starvation of horses and loss of habitat. Fellow member Steve Yardley, a Utah rancher who holds grazing permits from the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service, echoed that sentiment, adding that the rangeland is used by other species and that it will take 100 years to recover once it’s gone.
Then, as a sign of good faith toward advocates and nonprofit organizations and in an effort to encourage the BLM to work closer with these interested parties, new Board member Celeste Carlisle proposed a recommendation stating that the Advisory Board prefers "nonlethal management options for population control purposes when possible." It was approved only by a 4-3 vote.
Despite that recommendation, most of the Board did not deviate from its overall position of reaching the national Appropriate Management Level (AML) of 26,700 wild horses and burros by the killing of and unlimited sale for slaughter of healthy animals – in addition to brutal permanent sterilization. That position is directly in line with Acting BLM Director Brian Steed’s view. Steed emphasized that “the time for deciding on solutions is long past and congressional action will likely be needed to either provide more money to warehouse horses or authorize lethal measures.”
In response to that prevailing sentiment during the meeting, Board member Ginger Kathrens, founder of The Cloud Foundation, eloquently stated, “I think this is a moral argument. Should our wild horses pay for the long-term inaction of the government when tools that were available were voluntarily not used?”
The major themes of the meeting follow below. The first three closely align with the recommendations in Option One from the BLM’s 2018 Report to Congress, which was almost unanimously supported by the Board. (See discussion below). However, arguing for the use of more humane and sustainable management tools, Ms. Carlisle and Ms. Kathrens consistently opposed the most egregious of these recommendations that included more roundups, removals, and the addition of permanent surgical sterilization.
1. Appropriate Management Level (AML)
Throughout the meeting, discussion focused around the urgent need to get down to the national AML of 26,700 by removing 55,000 “excess” wild horses and burros from public lands as aggressively as possible, with the goal of each Herd Management Area (HMA) reaching its AML range.
Frequently, Board members sympathized with the BLM for not being able to attain AML because its “hands were tied” by the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act and expressed frustration with “the train wreck” they inherited.
Of note, several members questioned how the original AML was established and whether it was “appropriate” because it has “never been reached.” Others were obviously leaning toward lowering it based on the “carrying capacity” of the range. However, both Ms. Carlisle and Ms. Kathrens voiced concern about the goal to reach the established AML, with Ms. Carlisle wanting more scientific information, data, and background on how the AML was established in the first place and Ms. Kathrens arguing that current AML is already far too low.
2. Inhumane and Lethal Management Tools
While the Board repeatedly emphasized using all the “tools in the management toolbox” and seeking humane solutions, the clear tools of choice were more massive roundups and removals coupled with permanent sterilization via spaying and gelding and the killing of “excess” horses and burros.
Often the debate of these options was expressed in terms of having to make “hard decisions” on behalf of the horses and burros because of the Board’s claims that they were suffering on the range.
For example, Board member Mr. Yardley stated, "First and foremost, we have to take care of the land so that it can take care of the horses. And we have to humanely do what is right for the horses. And sometimes it's a lot more humane for a horse to be euthanized than it is for it to starve to death or die of thirst."
At one point, Board Chair Fred Woehl articulated what he believed were the only real choices: “If you don’t want euthanasia, you need to support spaying.”
At no point was there mention of the injuries and deaths resulting from past and current roundups, the complications of spaying of wild mares and its effects on herd behaviors and social order, or the brutality of horse slaughter.
Ironically, although last year’s Advisory Board meeting hosted a panel discussion on several successful PZP fertility control programs that resulted from private/public partnership with the BLM, there was little to no discussion of implementing a more comprehensive PZP program at this meeting. Most members believed that PZP was only a viable management option for use after AML was reached. And, Mr. Woehl, a vocal opponent of PZP, continued his support of spaying mares, arguing that PZP is too difficult to administer to wild mares and must be re-administered every couple of years.
As expected, Ms. Kathrens argued that the BLM must fully embrace fertility control before it ever considered selling horses for slaughter or other lethal measures.
Although Board members supported opportunities to increase adoption through, for example, the BLM’s Online Corrals and Adoption Incentive Programs as well as its contracts with the Mustang Heritage Foundation, lifting restrictions on the sale of horses and burros was heavily favored.
Unfortunately but not surprisingly, when advocating for increasing the number of horses or burros that an individual could purchase to 25 at a time, several members minimized concerns about those animals ending up in the slaughter pipeline and the possibility of another Tom Davis scandal that resulted in almost 1,700 BLM horses being shipped to Mexico to slaughter.
Mr. Woehl repeatedly insisted that it was “one isolated case, which was very wrong” but then went on to argue that selling 25 horses can help the BLM a lot as well as trainers who want wild horses. He also took issue with assumptions that these horses will go to slaughter. “That just sticks in my craw,” he asserted, adding later, “I have problems prejudging people based on one person.”
Mr. French echoed Mr. Woehl’s position, emphasizing that the BLM needs to assume “the best intentions” until people “do something wrong.”
In response, Ms. Carlisle stated that she had concerns about the sales policy, asking that parts of it be clarified, such as what constituted violations of the law, and any perceived loophole closed.
4. Private/Public Partnerships
A frequent topic through the meeting was developing private/public partnerships to provide permanent sanctuary for large numbers of horses and burros from BLM holding facilities and expanding volunteer programs to assist the BLM with, for example, marketing of the WH&B program, implementing fertility control, and gentling/training horses and burros for adoption.
Although, more partnerships could be beneficial at many levels, they would also present serious concerns.
First, the Board supported transferring wild horses and burros into private placement to help the BLM avoid not only the expense but also its federally-mandated responsibility to protect and care for wild horses and burros who are warehoused in long-term holding because of the agency’s reliance on endless roundups and removals. Just a reminder – in FY 2018, the BLM spent nearly two-thirds – or $49 million – of its $80 million budget for the “off range care” of wild horses and burros.
Also, the BLM, and most of the Board, expects these partnerships and programs, and specifically those with advocacy groups, to assume major responsibility for drastically reducing the number of horses and burros in holding. But here’s the kicker – when the programs aren’t successful, the Board and the BLM will then turn around blame the groups who stepped up to help clean up the huge mismanagement mess and use it to argue for euthanasia and unlimited sale for slaughter.
During the public comments period, AWHC delivered a petition signed by 250,000 people, demanding suspension of roundups because they are inhumane and traumatic for the horses and expensive and unsustainable for American taxpayers. “The sad truth is that these iconic American mustangs are being run off our public lands to make room [for] commercial livestock grazing that is subsidized by our tax dollars,” the petition stated, “even though it provides less than 2 percent of America’s beef supply.”