At April 11 hearing, officials focus on non-lethal management solutions
Yesterday on Capitol Hill, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment where he faced questions on his agency’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget on issues ranging from park fees to climate change, and of course, wild horses and burros on the Western range. As you’re certainly aware, the Secretary’s testimony last year was particularly cruel, asking for the authority and promising to slaughter thousands upon thousands of horses on public land across the West.
With your support, AWHC and our coalition partners led the fight to stop this critical threat by ensuring that Congress included language in the Fiscal Year 2018 omnibus that prohibited healthy wild horses from being slaughtered. At yesterday’s hearing, Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT), the chief proponent of mass killing of wild horses as a management solution, also seemed to throw in the towel on slaughter. Stewart noted that he didn’t get what he wanted last year and asked Secretary Zinke what he could do within his authority (without approval of Congress) to address management concerns.
Just months ago, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released its Fiscal Year 2019 budget request to Congress, once again asking Congress to grant the agency permission to slaughter “excess” horses. In yesterday’s testimony, however, Secretary Zinke seemed to change tactics from the budget request to endorse “birth control, spaying, [and] neutering” to “focus on [herd] growth.”
It may be that Secretary Zinke and Rep. Stewart have resigned themselves to the fact that the mass slaughter of America’s wild horses, particularly in this hugely important election year, is wildly unpopular, or it's also possible they're just hiding their cards. After all, the Fiscal Year 2019 budget for the BLM again calls on Congress to authorize the mass killing of America's wild horses and burros.
Whatever the reason, the shift in focus from slaughter to non-lethal options is a significant development.
And while we welcome the Secretary’s apparent support for birth control, we note that the BLM currently spends zero percent of the Wild Horse and Burro Program budget on PZP birth control vaccinations and the Fiscal Year 2019 budget does not indicate a shift in funding priorities. This despite the fact that Congress has repeatedly directed the BLM to increase its use of PZP fertility control. AWHC also agrees with Secretary Zinke that emphasis must be put on stabilizing herd populations by addressing reproduction on the range. It’s been done in the West for years with PZP in select herds. However, we cannot support "spaying" or "neutering" these magnificent wild animals. Castrating wild free-roaming stallions and sterilizing mares by surgically removing their ovaries would take the wild out of wild horses by destroying their natural behaviors, which are protected under federal law. If the BLM commits to spending more than zero percent of its budget on PZP, we are certain that population growth can be managed humanely.
Secretary Zinke made several other unsupported claims during yesterday’s hearing that should be addressed as well. The first was that public lands in the West can only support about 27,000 wild horses. This is, forgive me, horse pucky. The number is not based in science, as affirmed by the National Academy of Sciences in 2013. This arbitrary population limit essentially freezes the nation’s wild horse and burro population at the number that existed in 1971, when Congress determined that these animals were “fast disappearing” and in need of protection. It’s an absurdly low population limit that for any other species would be considered extinction level. Take, for example, New Mexico, where BLM allows just 83 horses on 14 million acres of BLM land. This translates to roughly to 3 horses across an area the size of Rhode Island.
Secondly, Rep. Stewart stated that PZP is “nearly impossible to administer effectively.” Once again, dedicated AWHC volunteers in Nevada’s Virginia Range darted more horses with PZP birth control in 2017 with a $50,000 budget than the entire BLM did in 2016 with its nearly $80-million-a-year budget. One would think that the government agency that built the Hoover damn should be able to do the same as a small non-profit. Lastly, the claim that it would be “inhumane to do nothing” implies that wild horses are suffering in the wild, but the evidence does not support this claim. To the contrary, all evidence shows that the vast majority of wild horses, even 40,000 in “excess,” are not starving or lacking water, but actually are thriving. The truth is rather less dramatic: the wild herds are in the way of a few special interests getting huge federal grazing subsidies for their cattle.
Secretary Zinke testified that he has spoken with some stakeholders like the Humane Society and wants to work to productively address wild horse overpopulation and we are happy to hear it. AWHC cannot, however, allow the BLM to institute a plan to gut the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act, and remove tens of thousands of wild horses from the range. We ask Secretary Zinke that he stand with us, with you, and over 100 other wild horse advocacy organization to protect these symbols of America under the Moving Forward Unified Statement & Principles, which have now been endorsed by more than 100 horse welfare and wild horse advocacy organizations.