“The damaging environmental effects may soon become irreversible and large die-offs of wild horses/burros and multiple species of plants and other animals could begin.”
Comments by editor
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has released a report to Congress outlining its most current recommendations for wild horse and burro management. The report is the result of numerous regional meetings hosted by the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Council, related tours of horse management areas (HMA’s), and testimonies from thousands of stakeholders and horse advocates. Despite emotionally-charged protests, and fiery public relations campaigns by horse advocate and animal rights groups, the report urges Congress to reduce restrictions on the sale of feral horses, and urges, in some cases, humane euthanasia of animals unfit for adoption or life on the range. The adoption incentive of $1,000 per horse is also recommended in the report.
The BLM is required to manage feral horses according to the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, but efforts to bring horse populations to sustainable levels are constantly under threat from well-funded environmental and advocate groups eager to litigate any attempts to decrease the number of horses on the range. Nevertheless, the report emphasizes what is often characterized as a ‘crisis’ by counties, ranchers, and government agents who must try to manage wild horse populations. Aggressive population control is needed now to stem an unfolding ecological catastrophe which is endangering local governments, rangelands, farmers, livestock, and most critically, the horses at the center of the report. This excerpt taken from the Executive Summary; “As rangeland health has decreased, animals have died due to a lack of water and forage. The most inhumane and costly solution is to continue to take no decisive action,” indicates the urgency with which the BLM and other stakeholders are asking Congress to act.
Highlights from the Report
Executive Summary, Paragraphs 5-8
•Wild horses and burros have no natural predators and herds can double in size every 4 years.
•As herd sizes increase, the forage and water resources from the land become depleted, resulting in starvation, dehydration, and death. In their search for food and water, the animals often move onto private land or along highways resulting in safety issues and habitat destruction for horses and humans alike.
•Public- land ranchers have cut back on grazing to accommodate increasing numbers of wild horses and burros.
•The current overpopulation of wild horses and burros threatens the overall health of the western rangelands, degrading ecosystem functions and limiting the forage and water available for domestic and wildlife species, including game and nongame species.
•…overgrazing by wild horses and burros has reduced sagebrush and grass cover vital to Greater Sage-Grouse and has resulted in lower survival rates in those areas. Overpopulated herds have displaced native species including pronghorn, deer, elk, and bighorn sheep.
•If wild horse and burro populations continue to expand, the impacts to animal and plant species will grow more severe across even larger swaths of the western public rangelands.
•The damaging environmental effects may soon become irreversible and large die-offs of wild horses/burros and multiple species of plants and other animals could begin.
Each of the following options contains similar provisions and recommendations, but offers a variety of priorities and timelines. Below are the four options and the actions which they emphasize:
Unrestricted Sales and Humane Euthanasia, Contraceptives
Option I: This option focuses on achieving national AML in 8 years, while reducing off-range holding costs dramatically over the first 4 years. In addition, during the first 4 years, the BLM would achieve AML in Herd Management Areas (HMAs) that overlap priority habitat for multiple species. This would require making use of all legal authorities contained in the Act (especially sale without limitation and euthanasia of unadopted or unsold animals), including use of contraceptives and limited sterilization techniques.
Under this option, the national AML of 26,715 wild horses and burros would be achieved in 2026.
PZP Fertility Control, Permanent Sterilization of Stallions, Off-Range Holding Facilities
Option II: This option focuses on achieving national AML in 10 years using contraceptive fertility control treatments such as Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP) and minimal permanent sterilization of mares or stallions. Current operations to dart mares with a contraceptive in HMAs would continue, where this option is effective. Under this option, the off-range costs of caring for animals would significantly increase over current levels, because of increased reliance on off-range care. Due to the large numbers of animals being held in off-range facilities, the cost of this option could be greatly affected by changes in the cost of contracting for off-range pastures, as the BLM would need more facility space than is currently available. The costs reflected in this option depend upon identifying partners who are willing and able to provide low-cost, off-range housing for excess animals. In addition, as in Option III, the BLM or its partners would attempt to secure lower cost, pasture-based holding facilities in lieu of short-term corrals that resemble livestock feedlots and cost twice as much as pasture facilities. Under this option, the national AML of 26,715 wild horses and burros would be achieved in 2028.
Aggressive Removal from the Range, Contract Grazing, $1,000 Per-head Adoption Incentive
Option III: This option focuses on achieving national AML in 6 years using an aggressive removal operation in conjunction with sterilization of 3,000 mares and stallions gathered annually, and later returned to the range. Current operations to dart mares with a contraceptive in some HMAs would continue. Under this option, far fewer animals would be gathered and returned to the range than Option II, and all of those animals would be sterile upon reintroduction. Animals that are gathered and not sterilized would be moved to off-range facilities. As the off-range population increases, keeping control of holding costs will require continually acquiring additional low-cost contracted pasture space to alleviate the need to keep animals in expensive short-term corrals. The BLM would strive to keep corral populations to minimum levels necessary to supply the adoption pipeline.
Current research on long-term contraceptives would continue, with the possibility of greater use of contraceptives in the future should a longer-acting agent prove to be effective. It should be noted that the additional demand for long-term pastures could significantly increase program costs over current levels until AML is achieved, at which point costs would begin to decline.
Finally, under this option the BLM would institute a program to increase adoptions by providing a monetary incentive to the adopter of up to $1,000. While this would increase costs in the initial years, it will quickly pay for itself by lowering off-range holding expenditures.
Under this option, the national AML of 26,715 wild horses and burros would be achieved in 2024.
Hired Veterinarians to Sterilize 18,000 Horses Each Year
Option IV: This option would achieve national AML in 2030 by using an aggressive effort to gather, sterilize, and return wild horses and burros to the range, while also developing the same adoption incentives described in Option III. The BLM would hire veterinarians to sterilize and return approximately 18,000 animals per year in each of the first 5 years and 8,000 in year 6. Under this option, off-range populations would begin to decrease almost immediately through natural mortality and continued efforts for private care placement. In addition, the total number of animals removed each year would be less than the annual adoption/sale levels, keeping down costs in the out years. In fact, program costs would be reduced to less than current levels in the seventh year. By the tenth year, off-range populations would begin to decline even faster through natural mortality in BLM’s contracted off-range pastures, as almost all animals held in those pastures would reach normal lifespan limits.
Fertility control treatments would focus on permanent sterilization through FY24 when more than 80 percent of the animals on the range would be permanently sterilized. Sterilizing this number of animals for 6 years would take high levels of coordination in all areas of the BLM, including updating our environmental analysis, contracting for services, and training personnel. There is a distinct risk that the BLM might need to hold and care for the animals gathered in the initial year for longer than planned to achieve these totals, which would increase costs in the first year above stated levels. At the same time, if this were to occur, the BLM would continue all efforts to increase adoptions to not only reduce holding costs, but also reduce the need to sterilize animals and return them to the range.
However, once the environmental analysis is complete and the service contracts are in place, the BLM could effectively implement the plan. Current research on long-term contraceptives would continue, with the possibility of reducing the need for permanent sterilization and increasing the use of contraceptives in the future should a longer-acting agent prove to be effective.
Finally, under this option, the BLM would institute a program to increase adoptions by providing a monetary incentive to the adopter of up to $1,000. If the incentive proves to increase adoptions beyond the planned 5,000, the BLM could decrease the use of permanent sterilization and increase removals to match adoption/sale totals. While this incentive would increase costs in the initial years, it will quickly pay for itself by lowering off-range holding expenditures.
Under this option, the national AML of 26,715 wild horses and burros would be achieved in 2030.
Related Charts and Graphs
Skyrocketing holding costs
Horses on the range
The result of an exhaustive process bedeviled by protests and hyperbole, the BLM report sheds a harsh and real light on the budget-busting, unsustainable, and increasingly inhumane problems facing America’s feral horses. This is a bold and honest assessment, but these recommendations can’t be implemented unless Congress is also so bold and honest.
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