New Details Emerge on "Collaborative" Plan for Wild Horses

(May 20, 2019) Details of the deal cut between the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and other livestock and hunting industry lobbying groups and the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS), the ASPCA and Return to Freedom are out, and it’s even worse than we thought. Billed as a compromise, the plan is nothing short of a surrender of the decades-long fight for fair treatment, humane management and preservation of our nation’s wild free-roaming horse and burro herds.

Entitled “The Path Forward for BLM’s Management of Wild Horses and Burros,” the 10-year plan calls for:

  • Roundup and removal of 15,00-20,000 wild horses and burros from our public lands for the first three years, followed by the annual removal of 5,000-10,000 horses per year for the remaining 7 years of the plan.  That’s 130,000 wild horses and burros removed over the next decade -- more than exist today on the range! Terrified horses and foals will be chased with helicopters, and many will be injured or killed and separated from their families.

  • An almost tripling of the number of wild horses and burros incarcerated at taxpayer expense, at a cost of close to $1 billion over the next decade, without any guarantee of long-term funding to ensure their safety from slaughter.

  • Reduction in wild populations to the BLM’s extinction-level “appropriate” management level -- which is 27,000 horses and burros on 27 million acres of land, down from the current population of 72,000 wild horses and 18,000 burros (as estimated by the BLM). The National Academy itself determined that this population limit had no basis in science, was not transparent or amenable to change based on changing environmental factors and social preferences.

  • Use of fertility control on 90% of the wild horses and burros left on the range, which, given the extreme population reductions envisioned, could spell the end of many herds. Further, there is no requirement for use of the humane PZP fertility control vaccine; the ASPCA itself acknowledges that the plan could allow for the conduct of gruesome, risky  and inhumane surgeries to remove the ovaries of wild mares.

  • Sex ratio skewing of remaining herds to achieve a 70% to 30 % stallion to mare ratio - an unheard of manipulation of a wildlife population that, by the BLM’s own admission, causes social disruption and increased aggression amongst herds as a large number of stallions fight for a small number of mares.

  • Large scale removals concentrated in areas of “direct political conflict,” meaning that powerful and connected ranching organizations like the Rock Springs Grazing Association in Wyoming and litigious ranchers in Beaver County, Utah and elsewhere (whose baseless lawsuits we have repeatedly defeated), will be prioritized in this plan.

This plan is the cattlemen’s dream, achieving their long-held goal of virtual eradication of the wild horse and burro population, reducing them to the numbers that existed in 1971 when Congress passed a law to protect these iconic animals because they were “fast disappearing from the American scene.”

Here’s what’s missing from the plan:

  • Any mention of the need to protect them in genetically viable herds. By reducing herds to AML, many will be reduced to a number below the Minimum Viable  Population number.

  • Any reference to livestock and the massively larger impact they have on grazing land in the West and the massive cost to taxpayers for the subsidized public lands livestock grazing program.

  • Any consideration of fairer resource allocation for wild horses and burros on the small amount of public land designated as their habitat.

  • Any creative solutions beyond roundup, removal  and “fertility control” (which, since undefined, could allow for mass sterilization) such as consolidation of Herd Management Areas to create viable habitat and create corridors for seasonal migration; range improvements to enable horses and burros to better use all of their designated habitats; and livestock grazing permit buyouts, or compensation to ranchers for reduced livestock grazing in areas of high conflict while wild horse populations are stabilized via PZP fertility control.

An Inside the Beltway Deal

Why did groups that claim to be concerned about wild horse protection negotiate such a bad deal with pro-slaughter lobbying groups? Why now, when wild horse slaughter is clearly off the table in this current Congress?

The truth is that the plan is an inside the beltway deal was cut by large corporate animal welfare organizations, who appointed themselves as negotiators for wild horses and our community of organizations fighting for them, but lack on the ground knowledge and experience in humane management of wild herds. In a phone call with AWHC, ASPCA government relations head Nancy Perry acknowledged that the groups representing wild horses in these negotiations had no on-the-ground presence to ascertain the veracity about claims of wild horse overpouplation and resulting damage to the range.

Not a single organization currently involved in implementing humane management programs for wild horses in the wild was involved in these negotiations. No wild horse protection organization from Nevada -- the state where over half the nation’s wild horses and burros reside -- was involved in cutting this deal. 

Throwing in the Towel

These groups have thrown in the towel on the fight for sustainable herds of free-roaming wild horses, by endorsing the BLM’s extinction level Appropriate Management Levels (AMLs). These AMLs are based on the allocation of 80% of forage resources to private livestock on the small amount of public land where wild horses and burros are allowed to live.

As just one example of the disturbing implications of the plan, the BLM will be allowed to reduce the population in the Silver King Herd Management Area (HMA) in Nevada to the low AML of 60 horses. With the 70-30 sex ratio skewing, 42 of the remaining stallions will be stallions, while just 18 will be mares. In addition,  90 percent of those horses will be given fertility control or sterilized. This is a recipe for the end of wild free-roaming horses in this HMA, a vast expanse of 600,000 acres in eastern Nevada, where thousands of livestock are allowed to graze.

Even worse, the groups have signed on to the BLM/cattlemen’s false claim that the BLM is legally required to manage wild horses at AML.

In fact, through legal action, AWHC and The Cloud Foundation have secured important legal precedents in both the Ninth and Tenth Circuit Courts of Appeal that established the following:

  • The BLM is not legally required to remove horses from the range just because their population is over the imposed AML. Rather, the BLM is required to manage wild horses and burros to maintain a "thriving natural ecological balance" on the public lands where wild horses live.

  • Removing horses from the range requires a two-step process. First, the agency must first determine that excess animals are present based on rangeland health data. Second, the agency must determine that excess horses must be removed in order to restore the thriving natural ecological balance.

  • The BLM has broad discretion when mannaging horses and is not required to remove excess horses. Rather it can address excess horses in a variety of ways including by implementing fertility control to reduce population numbers over time, and/or by reducing livestock grazing pursuant to 43 CFR Section 4710.5, which allows BLM to “close appropriate areas of the public lands to all or a particular kind of livestock” “if necessary to provide habitat for wild horses or burros..." ”

Ironically, Return to Freedom, one of the signatories to the cattlemen’s plan, was a party to our intervention in the Tenth Circuit case that established this precedent. It's disappointing that these organizations are ignoring these hard fought legal precedents.

Slaughter vs. Freedom

HSUS and ASPCA appear solely focused on preventing slaughter (which this plan, at best, does only in the short-term, while making it more likely over the long term). AWHC’s mission is broader and includes preserving wild free-roaming horses and burros on our public lands in viable free-roaming herds. And this plan presents the greatest threat in decades to our mission.

As a result, we are vigorously fighting it, working in coalition with other organizations calling on Congress to reject this mass removal plan.

You can join us in opposing this plan by taking action here.