Report: Reno, Nevada Wild Horse Summit

(June 18, 2019) In 2017, the Wildlife Society and its National Wild Horse and Burro Rangeland Management Coalition, representing  livestock and hunting interests including the NRA and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, organized a summit on wild horse management in Salt Lake City. Specifically excluded from the 3-day meeting were any individuals or organizations representing a pro-wild horse, anti-horse slaughter point of view. We dubbed the meeting the “Slaughter Summit” and protested outside in order to draw attention to what was happening inside. Not surprisingly, the outcome of the 2017 Slaughter Summit included a series of options five involved killing wild horses; protecting these iconic animals didn’t make the cut. While 80 percent of Americans want wild horses protected on public lands and oppose slaughtering them, 99 percent of Slaughter Summit participants favored killing wild horses for pet food.

Perhaps sensitive to criticism regarding exclusion of opposing voices at the Salt Lake summit, when the Wildlife Society and the Society for Range Management organized a wild horse summit this year, they hired a facilitator to invite a small number of pro-wild horse voices, including AWHC. The stated purpose of the summit, which was held in  Reno, Nevada May 29th-31st, was “to develop a stakeholder-based comprehensive communication strategy and processes to managing free-roaming equids in concert with other public lands multiples-use to achieve western rangeland ecosystem sustainability.” Roughly 90 groups attended to talk about the future of wild horse and burro management, primarily from the perspective of those who want to achieve large scale reductions in current population numbers through mass roundups.

Following is a report on the presentations and discussions that took place at this three-day event, which was attended by AWHC’s Government Relations and Policy Counsel Brieanah Schwartz and our Nevada-based Director of Field Operations Greg Hendricks.

Day One

Overall, and unsurprisingly, the presentations on day one of the summit did not represent a diversity of opinions or approaches to wild horse issues, nor did they offer a holistic look at the many challenges facing western public lands. Instead, the presentations were heavily skewed to placing inordinate blame for rangeland degradation on wild horses without mention of livestock grazing on public lands.

Opening remarks included this important point: We are talking about funding that all federal taxpayers have to cover and actions that take place on all our public lands.

It was disappointing to hear right off the bat just how important Appropriate Management Level (AML) was going to be a major theme and goal of the summit. This in spite of the  National Academy of Sciences (NAS) concluded in 2013: "How Appropriate Management Levels are established, monitored, adjusted is not transparent to stakeholders, supported by scientific information, or amenable to adaptation with new information and environmental and social change." Most certainly, flexibility on AML is a fundamental part of resolving the wild horse management debate. Although this was not discussed at the meeting, AWHC will continue to raise it as we continue to engage in discussions, since without addressing the fundamental inequity in resource allocation for wild horses on the small amount of land designated as their habitat, true conflict resolution on this issue will never be achieved.  

Representative Amodei (NV) spoke during the opening session and gave a shout out to his friend and colleague Representative Chris Stewart (UT) for securing $6 million in appropriated funds from the House for a pilot program on “sterilization.” Rep. Amodei was referencing  Cattlemen/HSUS/ASPCA/RTF plan for wild horses (discussed in depth below, “Session 8”).

Rep. Amodei also noted that what is being done now to manage wild horses and burros is not working, that we have more animals than we can currently support because the federal government is paying $70 million to care for those in holding. He said, “At some point Congress is going to get tired of that bill.” (This is exactly why AWHC opposes the Cattlemen/HSUS plan to more than double the number of horses in holding, as it will make eventual slaughter of wild horses more, not less, likely.)   

Amodei also played to the interests of his allies by placing the blame on Congress and the state of the law, instead of the BLM. This became a theme that was brought up from time to time throughout other talks - if you want someone to blame, blame Congress.

Session 1: Alan Shepherd (Acting National Program Lead, WH&B Program, BLM) spoke, first stating that the BLM could not continue to increase the numbers in holding because of costs, since there is no additional funding. If more horses are put in holding, then the BLM will not be able to manage wild horses on the ground due to lack of funds. However, Shepherd supports a “strong” roundup and removal process because in his view there is a need for better long-term fertility solutions (beyond PZP and GonaCon which he views as only effective with boosters), including continued research of permanent sterilization on mares.

Shepherd asserted that in FY18 the BLM tripled its removal rates, but that the agency “did not remove enough animals.” He stated that in FY19 the BLM is currently planning to remove 9,000 wild horses and burros from their habitats. Shepherd also explained that eco-sanctuaries are no longer referred to as such, now they are being called Public Pastures, which in AWHC’s view is actually more appropriate, since these facilities formerly known as eco-sanctuaries are open to the public, do not maintain horses in a natural state (with intact social groups) and still sell and adopt out wild horses, meaning they do not receive lifetime sanctuary.

Finally, Shepherd echoed the support for achieving AML by stating that until the BLM can get to AML, they have to use the current level of roundups. In calling for more removals, Mr. Shepherd did not address the National Academy of Sciences’ conclusion that, “Removals are likely to keep the population at a size that maximizes population growth rate, which in turn maximizes the number of animals that must be removed through holding facilities.”

Next, Terry Padilla (Acting National WHB Coordinator, USFS) spoke briefly on the sale without limitations “tool.” When referencing the ongoing litigation over the Forest Service’s plan to sell wild horses rounded up from the Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory in California’s Modoc National Forest, he said “It would be a bummer if we lost it [sale w/o limitations],” but continued that the agency would still move forward with sale with limitations. Padilla also noted that the USFS allocates $1.7 million annually to the BLM to hold USFS horses, which was part of the incentive for the USFS to construct and open the first USFS exclusive wild horse holding facility at Modoc. Padilla explained that the USFS has a goal of moving horses along as they are removed from the range and does not plan to hold any for long periods of time. [AWHC Note: The USFS is planning another roundup of 600-1000 Devil’s Garden horses from the Modoc National Forest sometime this fall. Read the latest update on Devil’s Garden horses here.]

Then Stefan Ekenas of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) spoke about the different modeling USGS has done of wild horses, specifically in the WinEquus program (described in the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Handbook, Section 4.8). He also touched on some of the major weaknesses of the program including noting that it is difficult to compare different scenarios and that costs cannot be considered as part of the scenarios. However, a different program PopEquus can calculate the annual costs per head. Ekenas then provided some cost analysis on PZP application compared to sterilization. With PZP 22 the model assumed that 90% would be treated and assumed that the horses would need to be rounded up every year (which is not always the case depending on which PZP vaccine is used). With sterilization the model assumed that a herd would only need to be rounded up every five years - an action Ekenas saw as more humane because the horses would be rounded up less. However, he did not consider the length of the handling when the horses would be rounded up for each procedure. Horses receiving an injection could be minimally handled whereas horses receiving a surgical procedure must inherently be handled much more. Regarding cost, he concluded that the sterilization option would save $1 billion over a ten year period when compared to roundups alone. He did not do a cost-comparison with fertility control, nor did he provide a basis for his assumptions regarding frequency of roundup or address the impacts of sterilization on wild free roaming horses and the genetic viability of herds.

Session 2Barry Perryman (Society for Range Management, Nevada Section) spent the majority of his presentation showing a series of photos of degraded water sources and blaming horses for all the damage. He did not address the variety of other species, including cattle, utilizing these water sources.

Phillip Street (University of Nevada, Reno) discussed how horses interact with other species around water sources.  However, instead of sharing that sentiment Street asserted that horses guard water sources and negatively affect other species. He did not mention the fact that horses trail in and out of water, commonly once or twice daily, leaving those water sources accessible to other species. The very last statement of Street’s presentation noted in passing that grazing can have the same effects as wild horses when not managed properly.

Jeffery Beck (University of Wyoming) spoke on the Adobe Town HMA radio collar study (final data from which will be collected in the Fall). Preliminary results show horses actually spend more time away from water sources, something Mr. Street did not mention in his presentation. Horses differ from other large ungulates as they prefer to graze for quality over quantity. Mr. Beck also spent time explaining the variability of the range across the West.

Session 3: Paul Griffin (BLM Research Coordinator) presented on the research projects BLM is supporting with funding from FY15. These projects range from PZP to gelding and can be found here.

Burns, Oregon veterinarian Leon Pielstick spoke on the ovariectomy via colpotomy procedure as it was used in Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge and the Spayed Filly Futurity projects. He sees this eventually being performed on pregnant mares and at the trap on the range. Pielstick noted that if there were to be complications from the surgery, it would mean death for the mare, but that of the 216 he has spayed only three have died. [AWHC Note: We know this statement to be incorrect, as at least two died in the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge study and a domestic mare and at least one burro died, while three others suffered extreme complications, at a workshop where Dr. Pielstick demonstrated the procedure. Of further note: no studies of the Sheldon mares spayed by Dr. Pielstick were conducted to ascertain complications, welfare implications or impacts on behavior of the colpotomy procedure.]

Despite this jarring statement, Pielstick avoided any comment on appropriate post-operative care or observation following ovariectomy via colpotomy surgery. Instead, he simply stated that complications would arise within the first 48 hours and that mares would be fine to be returned to the range after that period. Finally, Pielstick concluded with this sentiment, “For those of us that have seen a horse dying at a mud hole, it’s easy to accept the risk of management.” Of course, Dr. Pielstick did not mention other, more humane and safer options to management wild horse population growth across the west, nor did he address the National Academy of Sciences’ conclusion that the procedure he is promoting is “inadvisable for a field setting” due to risk of bleeding and infection.

For more on the Warm Springs Spay Experiments, you can read our most recent comments here.

Ursula Bechert (SpayVac-for-Wildlife, Inc. and University of Pennsylvania) and Mark Fraker (SpayVac-for-Wildlife, Inc.) presented on their study of the SpayVac vaccine. This vaccine is a form of PZP that affects ovarian function and prevents fertilization. The study on the effectiveness and effects of this vaccine are still preliminary.

Finally, Carlos Gradil (University of Massachusetts) spoke on the Upod IUD which has been primarily tested on domestic mares at this point. Recently, he began implementing it on wild mares in Australia. Gradli claimed that the self-assembling IUD is easy and fast to place and he noted that it offers essentially immediate infertility. Results are still preliminary.

Session 4: Rudy Shebala (Director, Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources) explained that horses were at one time an important part of his culture, and that the horses are still used during religious ceremonies. However, he stated that they need to reduce the number of horses and those that have been turned loose and are no longer cared for. Shebala told the delegation that the current program they have in place is that any tribal member can bring in a horse on Tuesdays and will get $100 in return. He claimed that the horse is then shipped to Mexico for “use in Mexican rodeos.”  

Day one ended with the showing of two propaganda films about wild horse issues. First, the “Horse Rich and Dirt Poor,” produced by Ben Masters, a former member of the Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board was shown with brief commentary by Keith Norris of The Wildlife Society, the pro-livestock and hunting organization that funded the film.. Then the summit transitioned into a social sponsored by agricultural industry front group, Protect the Harvest, where a video about the spayed filly futurity project was shown.

Day Two

For Day Two, the delegates were split into two groups. Half went on a field trip to the Pine Nut Herd Management Area (HMA) in the morning and half went on the field trip in the afternoon. While not on the field trip, those that stayed behind participated in facilitated discussion on the primary issues arising in free-roaming equid management. These discussions were meant to facilitate and narrow the topics discussed by the entire delegation on the last day of the summit.

Session 8: The Path Forward for the Management of BLM’s Wild Horse and Burros, a panel of Redge Johnson (Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office), Celeste Carlisle (Return to Freedom), and J.J. Goicoechea (Nevada State Veterinarian and former president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association).

The plan is the result of an inside the beltway deal 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. 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. 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 16,200 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.” [Go here to read AWHC’s full breakdown of the plan.]

The panel started off by saying that the groups involved did not mean to exclude anyone, that they are open to working on and developing the plan. They emphasized that it took two years to get this plan finalized with the limited number of voices that were involved. [AWHC note: the participants were so limited in fact, that they excluded any group currently implementing humane management of wild horses on the range and no wild horse protection organization from Nevada - the state where over half of the nation’s remaining wild horses live.]

The panelists continually referred to the plan as an idea, not a plan in an effort to convey that they do not see this as the end all and be all of management for the BLM. The panelists also explained that there are some HMAs that are fine and others that are not. [AWHC note: It was interesting to see proponents of the plan backpedal on its status as a plan for wild horse management, despite the title.]

Celeste Carlisle spoke about the modeling that the groups did to see if fertility could be used effectively. She said her models showed that only fertility control will not work because nothing is 100 percent effective. Instead, they then analyzed how the combination of roundups and fertility control could be economically viable.

When the panel was asked about what methods of fertility control were included in the plan, Johnson responded that the full sweep should be used on an HMA (including PZP, spayvac, sterilization, including ovariectomy and IUDs). However, he emphasized that these decisions should be left to the agencies and that one can get into trouble when prescribing or limiting the agency by a recommendation.

[AWHC Note: The "population growth suppression" that the plan calls for, fertility control on 90% of the wild horse and burros remaining on the range (including sterilization) and sex ratio skewing of wild horses to 70% stallions and 30% mares, is an unprecedented manipulation of a wildlife population. Even BLM admits this will cause social upheaval & aggression as a large number of males fight for limited females.]

The panelists explained that the plan is based on a ten year time period that is front loaded in terms of roundups and expense. Their hope is that the expense would drop as time went on. Redge Johnson asked the delegates to not fight the BLM in lawsuits against the options it chooses for wild horse management. He pointed out the horses recently released in Idaho and that horses can come back just like those horses did. Johnson then emphasized that the original appropriations request [advanced by the cattlemen’s lobbies and the HSUS/ASPCA/RTF]  was $50 million to just get the roundups funded in the plan. He stated that the $6 million that the House Appropriations Committee allocated to the program instead will not get them anywhere.

There was also question as to whether the roundup numbers proposed under the plan were actually attainable. The plan calls for the roundup of 20,000 horses each year for the next four years, then 10,000 for two years, and then 5,000 from there onward. J.J. Goicoechea noted that any horses that come in from a roundup should be “treated.”

It was also asked what would happen if Congress comes out with a Continuing Resolution (CR) or otherwise without the $50 million that they asked for. The panel answered that without the funding everything will change: the numbers of horses on the range, the cost, and the degradation. Therefore, they expressed that the plan would need to be revisited and would be revisited each year to analyze any new factors as they arise.

You can read AWHC’s recent statement on the plan here.

Day Three

The Summit’s “Communication Message and Process Facilitation” was led by the Langdon Group. Participants were split into four groups, by choice: two groups to discuss population management and two groups to discuss rangeland health. All delegates switched topics and discussed each with a different group for the majority of the morning.

The Langdon Group facilitators then compiled what the breakout discussion groups came up with and presented it to the entire delegation. They hope to send out a report on these conclusions in the weeks following the summit. The summit organizers are looking to have another summit later this year, potentially in October.

AWHC is committed to continuing this dialogue and this process with the goal of doing our best to represent our supporters and the 80 percent of Americans who want wild horses protected, not slaughtered, by advocating for wild horse preservation in the wild and humane management of wild herds. We will keep you updated as the process continues.