Mary Koncel, AWHC Program Specialist
Not surprisingly, this fall’s BLM Wild Horse & Burro Advisory Board (AB) meeting, held in Washington, D.C. on October 29-31, continued the agency’s assault on America’s wild herds. According to board members, wild horses continue to be the sole cause of range land destruction and all the “tools in the toolbox” need to be utilized, including massive roundup and sterilization, in order to bring about a solution – the near extinction of wild horses and burros.
The AB is supposed to represent all stakeholders, and the largest stakeholder group is the American public who overwhelming supports the protection and humane management of wild horses and burros. However, it seems that the only stakeholder that the AB is beholden to is the subsidized private livestock grazing industry. Not once was there even a passing whisper about the number of livestock or their devastating impacts on America’s public lands.
A complete agenda for the meeting can be found here.
New Board Members
Susan McAlpine, Humane Advocacy, and Vernon C. Bleich, Wildlife Management, are the two newly appointed AB members. Both appear to have readily embraced the BLM’s two most common mantras: “Blame the wild horses for everything” and “We’re doing this to save the starving wild horses.”
Ms. McAlpine replaced Ginger Kathrens, who served for one term as humane advocate but was not reappointed. Unlike the vast majority of other board members, Ms. Kathrens was not reappointed for a second term, despite her willingness to serve, her impeccable credentials and numerous letters of recommendation.
Ms. McAlpine hails from Arizona. She claims to have trained and advocated for horses all her life. She has a B.S. in Secondary Education and a M.E. in Instructional Design.
Dr. Bleich lives in Texas. He has studied western wildlife populations for over 40 years. Currently, he serves as a research professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Like the other AB members, neither Ms. McAlpine nor Dr. Bleich have any direct experience or knowledge of in-the-wild management of wild horses and burros on public or private lands.
They Really Said That
Truly remarkable at this meeting was the number of AB member statements that ranged from insulting to downright ignorant. Here’s a sampling:
- According to Dr. Tom Lenz, one of the reasons the BLM is in this “situation” is because “we’ve allowed the American public who has the least amount of knowledge … about how to manage the horses [to] manage the horses.”
Difficult decisions, including the spaying of mares, he continued, need to be made by experts in the field and not by the “uniformed and uneducated” people who want to be part of those decisions.
- Dr. Susan McDonald stated that she was disheartened by the misinformation being spread on spaying and referred to people who sent her letters about it as “emotionally fragile.” (Note: Previously Dr. McDonald told AWHC Executive Director Suzanne Roy that the ovariectomy surgery can be performed safely if the veterinarian is very experienced in the procedure and has small hands (preferably a woman) due to the internal trauma that can be caused by the manual procedure. She also stated that it would be "crazy" to release ovariectomized mares onto the range because the procedure causes mares to act like they are perpetually in estrus, which would cause "social chaos" in wild herds.)
- Steve Yardley asked if there was any research into techniques that would cause early term abortions of foals under six weeks old.
- Fred Woehl stated that the PZP fertility control vaccination does not have a long enough history to determine its effects on wild horses even though PZP has been in use for 30 years and has dozens and dozens of peer-reviewed research articles documenting its efficacy and effect on wild horses.
A Special Guest – William Perry Pendley
Mr. Pendley, Acting Deputy Director of BLM Policy and Programs, opened his presentation by referring to the recent Society of Environmental Journalists meeting where he declared wild horses and burros as “an existential threat” to public lands.
Despite the extreme nature of that position, he admitted he was “newcomer” to the wild horses and burros but “was eager to learn,” adding “I don’t know almost anything about this issue except for what I’ve been advised by experts in the BLM.”
Emphasizing that the BLM can’t adopt its way out of the “problem,” Mr. Pendley repeated the BLM’s “all the tools in the toolbox” mantra that calls for more roundups and removals, more capacity for holding, more aggressive fertility control, and more research on fertility control.
At the same time, he described the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA) as “a terrible burden” for the BLM because it requires the agency to do an Environment Assessment for every gather and other projects, including expansion of private and public corrals. (Note: Mr. Pendley has spent his career advocating for the removal of public lands from the public domain into private hands, so it's easy to see where his disdain for NEPA, which provides for public input into policy decisions affecting public lands, comes from.)
Overview of Wild Horse and Burro Program/Response to Previous AB Recommendations – Bruce Rittenhouse
From the start, Mr. Rittenhouse, Acting Wild Horse and Burro Division Chief, emphasized that in order to have healthy horses on healthy public rangelands, the agency needs to aggressively remove wild horses down to Appropriate Management Level (AML) and hold off on implementing fertility control while HMAs are over AML because it is not cost-effective.
Absent from his argument was any mention that the BLM has never reached AML using just roundups and removals and that the National Academy of Sciences concluded that these “business as usual practices” are not only “expensive and unproductive for BLM and the public it serves” but also fuel high population growth rates for horses remaining on the range.
To support his claim that horses were dying from starvation and dehydration and justify accelerated removals, he displayed a photograph of a group of horses at a water trough in the middle of a barren landscape. Of the group, just one mare with a foal was noticeably thin. AB members then referred back to the photo as evidence to support their claim that horses were dying from starvation and dehydrated horses and justify more and more removals!
Although Mr. Rittenhouse stated that the BLM remained committed to all forms of “humane” fertility control where it is effective, he systemically dismissed the use of PZP/PZP 22 for a host of reasons – that it was difficult to use in large, overpopulated herd, that it was time intensive and required a considerable number of volunteers, and so forth. At the same time, he acknowledged that the BLM treated only 800 animals on 16 HMAs in FY 2019!
AB members pressed him about the need for a “Programmatic Environmental Assessment” (EA) that would allow the BLM to accelerate roundups and removals without doing a specific EA for each Herd Management Area or Complex. In response, Mr. Rittenhouse stated that it would be problematic on several levels, adding “I’m not a NEPA expert” – a surprising admission coming from the head of the Wild Horse and Burro Program.
Here are some of the FY 2019 numbers from the WH&B program provided by Mr. Rittenhouse:
- Estimated wild horse and burro population on the range: 88,090
- Animals removed from the range: 7,276
- 7,104 animals placed into private care in FY19 -- 5,130 adopted and 1,974 sold. (This 35% increase in placement over last year may be related to the $1,000 adoption incentive BLM is offering and the apparent acceleration of making adoption horses available for sale authority. At the same time, rescuers report an uptick in mustangs and burros showing up in kill pens, many still with BLM tags on them.)
Other highlights from Mr. Rittenhouse’s appearance included the following:
- Disappointment that nonprofit organizations haven’t stepped up to take horses and burros removed from range.
- A claim that bait-trapping horses is not more cost-effective than helicopter roundups.
- Insistence that no recovery of range land in HMAs is possible as long as they are over AML.
It's clear that under the current Administration the BLM and the anti-wild horse AB are feeling empowered to pursue an even more draconian mismanagement agenda.
Throughout the meeting, AB members emphasized the following themes that defy science, the BLM own data, the Wild Horse and Burro Act, and common sense:
- The public rangelands are at a “tipping point,” and wild horses and burros are the sole cause for the degradation. There was no mention of the impacts of private livestock grazing or climate change.
- The BLM’s efforts to manage wild horses and burros are severely hampered by a misinformed Congress and American taxpayers.
- Although the BLM supports the use of fertility control vaccinations, such as PZP, they are ineffective in controlling population growth rates for wild horses and burros in large HMAs.
- Spaying of mares and gelding of stallions are necessary “tools in the toolbox” because of the cost of applying of fertility control vaccinations and the difficulty of recapturing horses for boostering. There was no mention of volunteer groups and nonprofits successfully implementing PZP programs.
- The only solution to the wild horse and burro “problem” is massive roundups and removals to reach Appropriate Management Level (AML) of 26,690 animals and then implementation of various forms of fertility control and sterilization to maintain population growth rates and AML.
- When returning horses to the range after a roundup, the BLM should select those who would be considered “most adoptable” in terms of conformation so that those genes would be passed on to future generations. In other words, the BLM should manage all HMAs as gigantic breeding operations for potential adopters.
- The BLM should expand its overseas adoption/sales program because there is such a demand for wild horses in countries, such as Germany. According to the AB, concerns about lack of compliance checks and wild horses going to slaughter were exaggerated and unfounded.
- A Bright Idea, a marketing firm, presented an update on its work to develop a branded campaign to increase the placement of horses and burros into private care.
- Krystal Johnson, Eastern States WHB Program Lead, provided a live demonstration of the expanded BLM Online Corral, emphasizing that the goal was to present more animals for placement and to reach a broader market.
- Meredith Kueck, BLM WHB Specialist, provided an overview of the improved Wild Horse and Burro Program System (WHBPS), explaining that the intent was to improve coordination and communication within the BLM.
- Dr. Paul Griffin, BLM WHB Specialist, reported on Ongoing Research and Management Applications. Included was a presentation on continuing research into fertility control, such as PZP, GonaCon, IUDs, gelding, and methods to prevent egg maturation, as well as a demonstration of Pop Equus that modeled population growth rates of wild herds in different scenarios using various management techniques.
- Dr. Griffin also stated that fertility control alone could not reach AML and that the BLM is significantly disadvantaged because it has no dedicated budget for research.
The Advisory Board made six recommendations to the BLM and U.S. Forest Services (USFS). Although not as controversial as recommendations from past meetings, two are of particular concern.
Recommendation #2 encourages the BLM and USFS to implement the management strategies endorsed by the AAEP and AVMA that include sterilization, massive roundups and removals, and sale for slaughter. This is troubling given that these strategies conflict with current science, including the 2013 report by the National Academy of Sciences on the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program, and the will of the American people, who overwhelmingly oppose killing our iconic mustangs and burros.
Ovariectomies are included in the recommendations.
Recommendation #3 encourages the BLM and USFS to meet with Tribal authorities and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) around wild horses and burro management challenges. Last spring, the Forest Service, along with the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe, conducted a brutal removal of 500 horses from the Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest in Northern Nevada. Claiming the horses belonged to the Tribe, the Forest Service returned the horses to them. Most of the adult horses were shipped for slaughter. Partnering with Tribal authorities and the BIA could result in more horses meeting a similar fate as tribal horses