Q&A: Dangerous Plan for Wild Horses

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The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the Public Lands Council (lobbying group for public lands ranchers), Rep. Chris Stewart(R-UT), the ASPCA, the Humane Society of the United States and Return to Freedom this week released a plan for wild horse management that calls for unprecedented removals of wild horses and burros from our public lands. The plan is being couched by the groups in positive terms, but it has dangerous implications for America's wild herds.

1. Does the plan and appropriations languagerequire the removal of 15,000-20,000 wild horses from public lands this year?

Yes. From the language being promoted:

“The funding provided for FY 2020 anticipates that 15,000-20,000 wild horses and burros shall be removed from the range.”

This removal number is unprecedented in the history of the program. Similarly large removals are envisioned for several years to drastically reduce the wild horse population to close to the number that existed in 19 71 when Congress passed a law to protect them because they were "fast disappearing."

2. Does the plan and appropriations legislation language require PZP use?

No. From the language being promoted:

“These removals will be coupled with mandatory on-range population growth suppression programs which will ensure that all appropriate wild horses and burros are treated. The agency should work with interested stakeholders to further develop and implement appropriate removal, fertility control, and relocation plans.

The language does not require the use of PZP fertility control. Among the methods of population growth suppression that the BLM wants to use are castrating (gelding) stallions and surgically removing the ovaries of mares. Both methods will destroy the wild free-roaming behaviors of these protected animals. The ASPCA’s Frequently Asked Questions on the plan states,

The panoply of options included for population growth suppression would theoretically include some forms of sterilization. To start with, gelding and re-releasing those animals to the range could be part of the re-balancing and population control plan. The more controversial idea of sterilizing mares has been in the public discourse for a few years and while that might be allowable under this plan, those methods would have to be proven safe and humane before being employed.”

3. Does the plan prevent horses and burros from being killed?

Yes, but just for the current year - the long term safety of the horses that will be removed from the range is far from guaranteed.

Congress annually includes language in appropriations legislation that prevents the BLM from destroying healthy wild horses and burros and selling them for slaughter. In 2017, the Interior Department asked Congress to remove this prohibition, but the Senate declined to do so. Since then, the slaughter of wild horses has been off the table regardless of the groups’ plan.

4. Does the plan guarantee the long-term safety of wild horses and burros removed from the range?

No. While removals are required in the appropriations language being promoted by the groups, the language only “encourages” the BLM to contract with larger-scale private pasture providers to provide humane, protective care of wild horses and burros. These contracted pastures would be subject to annual funding by Congress. If Congress at some point in the future decides not to fund these pastures, the horses would likely be killed or sold for slaughter.

The groups’ plan will double the number of horses in holding (from 50,000 to more than 100,000) over the next several years without a guarantee for lifetime care or the long-term safety of these horses who have been removed from the range. Since holding costs are already being used by some to justify the mass slaughter of the horses, the groups’ plan makes the eventual destruction of tens of thousands of horses more likely than it is today.

5. Does the plan represent a new day for wild horses?

No. The plan is essentially the same plan promoted by the BLM and the cattle industry, as evidenced by Congressional testimony in 2016 during which rancher advocate JJ Goicoechea advocated for removing all wild horses down to the BLM’s extinction level AML and sterilizing those who remain on the range. Although sterilization of all wild horses on the range is clearly not the intention of the groups, there is nothing in the language that would prevent this from being partially or fully implemented.

By endorsing the BLM’s “Appropriate” Management Levels (AMLs), which the National Academy of Sciences concluded “lack a science-based rationale,” these groups are endorsing the cattle industry agenda of prioritizing livestock over wildlife, including wild horses, on our public lands. Fair allocation of resources for wild horses and burros on the small amount of public lands dedicated for their use is at the heart of the fight to preserve these national icons on our Western public lands. By accepting the BLM’s unscientific AMLs, these groups’ have chosen to throw in the towel on that fight, something that AWHC and our colleagues at the Cloud Foundation and other wild horse advocacy groups will not do.

6. What are the Alternatives?

The groups’ are advocating for roundups/removals and fertility control for every mare on the range. This two-dimensional approach excludes creative and holistic solutions for wild horse management that include:

  • Creating more habitat and resources for horses through grazing buyouts and compensation to ranchers for reduced use of grazing permits in wild horse territory.

  • Consolidation and reorganization of Herd Management Areas to create habitat for horses that includes migration corridors and access to adequate feed and water. Private land buyouts could also be part of this plan.

  • Community-based fertility control programs designed for specific HMAs where necessary instead of the cookie-cutter approach

  • Allowing a larger number of horses to remain on the range in areas where predators are protected to achieve natural population control.

  • Follow the recommendations of the National of Sciences Report which stated that,

How AMLs are established, monitored, and adjusted is not transparent to stakeholders, supported by scientific information and need to be amenable to adaptation with new information and environmental and social change.

Roundups are “facilitating high horse population growth rates” and “regularly removing horses holds population levels below food-limited carrying capacity. Thus, population growth rate could be increased by removals through compensatory population growth from decreased competition for forage. As a result, the number of animals processed through holding facilities is probably increased by management.” Further, “[Excessive] reliance on a removal-based management strategy could backfire because removal can lead to rapid population increases due to density-dependent compensation. Compensatory (or overcompensatory) responses to removal may be contributing to the high growth rate realized by the free-ranging horse populations in many HMAs.”

In the long run, management strategies aimed at reducing population growth to a modest rate (such as 5 percent per year) with methods (e.g., a more aggressive fertility-control program targeting both males and females) might be most effective. Such a strategy would ensure that unpredictable variation in the environmental factors and catastrophic events and uncertainty in the effects of management interventions would not reduce populations to below acceptable size. Because only a small number of horses would have to be removed annually if the growth rate is modest, quick placement of removed horses could be possible.