BLM, again, abandons sterilization tests as herds grow

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Scott Streater, E&E News

November 8, 2018

The Bureau of Land Management is abandoning efforts to research a permanent sterilization technique for wild mares roaming federal rangelands after a coalition of advocacy groups challenged the effort in court — the second time in two years the agency has done so.

BLM no longer will pursue research on a procedure — called ovariectomy via colpotomy — that involves removing the ovaries from about 100 mares gathered from the Warm Springs Herd Management Area in central Oregon, according to a motion filed by the Department of Justice on behalf of BLM and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

The motion follows a preliminary injunction issued last week by U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman in Oregon halting the sterilization research — including a behavioral analysis of the spayed mares led by the U.S. Geological Survey — until the lawsuit was resolved (Greenwire, Nov. 5).

Mosman's preliminary injunction was sparked by a federal lawsuit filed by a coalition of groups that includes the Cloud Foundation, American Wild Horse Campaign and Animal Welfare Institute (Greenwire, Sept. 24).

DOJ yesterday submitted the four-page motion to the court stating that despite a "good faith effort" by attorneys on both sides "to resolve this dispute," they were unable to do so.

That effort included DOJ on Monday submitting a proposed settlement — the details of which are not outlined in the motion — to the advocacy groups that was rejected "the following day."

"After thorough consideration of the proceedings," specifically Mosman's injunction, "and in light of Plaintiffs' rejection of their settlement offer, Defendants intend to rescind the portion of the [BLM] Decision Record pertaining to the spay feasibility and on-range behavioral outcomes assessment study," according to the DOJ motion.

BLM, which has already rounded up more than 850 wild horses in the Warm Springs HMA in central Oregon, "is retaining the portion of the Decision Record" that allows the agency to "permanently remove excess horses from the range," meaning only a portion of the animals that had been rounded up as part of the research project will be returned to the range, the motion says.

The appropriate management level for the Warm Springs HMA is about 200 horses, meaning BLM will now try to adopt out roughly 600 excess horses, or keep the animals it cannot adopt in long-term holding pens and corrals.

A BLM spokesman said the agency cannot comment on pending litigation, and referred questions to the Justice Department. A DOJ spokesman declined to comment.

BLM said in a press release last summer that the spaying technique to be tested "is a standard used for domestic horses and is generally considered less invasive than a typical spay procedure used for domestic cats and dogs. The procedure takes fewer than 15 minutes to complete."

But the move to abandon the sterilization research is a victory for animal and wild horse advocates, who have labeled the procedures to be tested as "barbaric."

"We are gratified that the BLM has nixed these cruel experiments on federally protected horses, but it should not take two lawsuits over two years to convince a federal agency that America's beloved wild horses deserve humane approaches to population management," Joanna Grossman, equine program manager for the Animal Welfare Institute, said in a statement.

Second time around

BLM two years ago abruptly canceled a similar research project with Oregon State University after Front Range Equine Rescue filed a federal lawsuit challenging the agency's "shocking decision" to "perform dangerous and untested surgical sterilization on captive wild horses — many of them pregnant mares." Two other groups later filed separate federal lawsuits related to the research program (E&E News PM, Sept. 9, 2016).

"The BLM made the right decision to abandon these barbaric experiments and instead listen to the strong interest the public has in seeing our wild horses protected and treated humanely," Brieanah Schwartz, government relations and policy counsel for American Wild Horse Campaign, said in a statement.

Schwartz and other wild horse advocates want BLM to increase the practice of darting animals with fertility vaccines, specifically porcine zona pellucida, or PZP, which renders mares infertile for roughly a year.

While effective, it's not practical for BLM to annually round up and treat tens of thousands of horses with PZP across vast herd management areas, critics say.

Meanwhile, BLM is struggling to manage more than 82,000 wild horses and burros across roughly 27 million acres of federal herd management areas — about 55,000 more animals than the appropriate management level, or AML, which is the maximum number of horses and burros that regulators believe the rangeland can handle without causing damage to vegetation, soils and other resources.

BLM spends tens of millions of dollars every year to care for nearly 46,000 additional animals it has rounded up and placed in private holding pens and corrals. BLM has warned Congress that it could cost taxpayers $1 billion to care for these animals over their lifetimes.

The fear is that, with no natural predators, current wild horse and burro populations could double in size over the next four or five years, a situation that would almost certainly lead to animals dying of starvation and lack of water.

"We are extremely disappointed that BLM has once again been forced to follow an anti-science approach to this animal welfare and ecological disaster," said Ethan Lane, chairman of the National Horse & Burro Rangeland Management Coalition, which advocates for downsizing herds on public lands to sustainable levels.

Lane blamed advocacy groups for a growing problem he said will ultimately cause wild horses and other animals on federal rangelands to suffer.

"Between their bullying of university researchers and abuse of the legal system in this case, the activist community is sending a clear signal that they are unwilling to entertain even the most modest, non-lethal management options to address this crisis," he said. "If reasonable stakeholders in this debate continue to placate them, it will be disastrous for the very animals they claim to be protecting."

What's next?

BLM's abandonment of the research project likely means it will continue to increase efforts to adopt out as many animals as possible.

The agency is working on implementing an adoption incentive program in which BLM would pay $1,000 to someone who adopts one of the tens of thousands of wild horses that the agency has removed from federal rangelands and is paying to care for in off-range holding pens and corrals.

Brian Steed, the agency's deputy director of policy and programs, announced last month at BLM's National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board hearing in Salt Lake City that it would offer the adoption incentive program sometime this fall and that the move would save taxpayers money, since it costs as much as $48,000 to care for each animal over its lifetime (Greenwire, Oct. 10).

Meanwhile, the agency is likely to continue developing a permanent sterilization method that works and is humane.

BLM officials discussed the effort to test the permanent sterilization of wild mares at the Warm Springs HMA during the national advisory panel hearing.

Paul Griffin, research coordinator for BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program, referred to a study of the ovariectomy via colpotomy method that he said was conducted on mares at Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada and said "fairly low complication rates" were observed.

"The study we're proposing to do in Warm Springs in Oregon will just provide more detail about the information that we think we already know about the effects of via colpotomy spaying," he said, adding that BLM would need to first prevail in court.

Ginger Kathrens, a member of the BLM advisory panel and the executive director of the Cloud Foundation — one of the groups suing BLM over the Oregon research — mentioned at last month's hearing a 2013 National Academy of Sciences report that recommended developing new or improved existing population growth suppression methods for wild horses. She told Griffin the report did not recommend ovariectomy via colpotomy, and had indeed listed health concerns associated with its use on mares.

"Has something changed that would alter that decision with the NAS, do you think?" she asked.

Griffin said that the NAS report did not recommend against this type of spaying method and that since then, new information has been developed.

He noted a USGS panel in 2015 that analyzed different spaying methods and concluded that ovariectomy via colpotomy "was one of the most promising of the spay methods available for use by BLM."

Originally posted by E&E News