The Wild Horse & Burro Advisory Board met in Grand Junction, Colorado this week to discuss the state of wild horse management and passed strong recommendations for the BLM’s management plan.
The BLM’s Wild Horse & Burro Advisory Board consists of citizen representatives from the public and interest groups; no government employee can serve on the Board. Members include representatives of wild horse advocacy groups, research groups, livestock organizations, wildlife organizations and veterinarians. Members are appointed by the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior. The purpose of the Board is to discuss and make recommendations to the Bureau of Land Management for consideration to improve management of wild horses and burros. The BLM is not required to adopt any measures recommended by the Board as the Board serves only in an advisory role.
Wild horses have been caught in the middle of raging battles in recent years between the Bureau of Land Management and various advocacy and interest groups. Wild horse advocates want to see as many horses remain on the range as possible, with suggestions ranging from increasing the use of the PZP birth control vaccine to halting all human management and letting nature take its course. Livestock groups want to protect their grazing interests on BLM lease land. Wildlife groups seek to protect all of the animals on BLM land to make sure there is adequate grazing for all.
The annual meeting of the Board took place on October 18 and 19, 2017 in Grand Junction, Colorado. Full transcripts and video from this meeting are not yet available, but we are learning from advocacy groups and individuals on the Board what recommendations were made:
- Allow the sale or destruction of healthy animals from the range to bring the population to the BLM’s stated management level. The Bureau of Land Management operates based on “Appropriate Management Level,” which is a population number that it has computed the land can support. The current AML is 27,000 nationally, with current populations estimated to range between 80,000 and 85,000 wild horses. At present, the BLM is legally allowed to remove “excess” horses from the range and place them into holding, where they are offered to the public for adoption. Horses not adopted are placed in permanent long-term holding. Feeding the horses in long-term holding costs about $50 million annually, about two-thirds of the BLM’s annual operating budget.
This recommendation would allow the BLM to sell horses, rather than adopt to the public, as well as euthanize animals on the range, in order to reach the designated AML.
- Phase out long-term holding over three years. Horses in long-term holding would be made available for public adoption again, with unadopted horses euthanized. The concept behind this recommendation is to free the funding currently tied up in long-term holding and redirect it elsewhere in the wild horse management program. There are currently about 32,000 horses in long-term holding.
- Increase funding for reversible birth control. With funding freed up from eliminating long-term holding, more money can be applied into the reversible birth control program to help keep management levels low on the range and reduce the need for round-ups and removal. PZP darting is currently used to great effect on several herd management areas, which have not required a roundup in years.
- Once herds are at AML, population levels should be managed by birth control darting, adoption or permanent sterilization. Only about 4,000 horses are adopted out each year as the program currently stands. This recommendation would ensure that only as many horses as can be adopted would be removed from the range annually, further eliminating the need for long-term holding.
In 2016, the Board made a similar recommendation that horses in long-term holding be euthanized, freeing the budget to better manage horses on the range. This recommendation was met with widespread public outrage and increased pressure from wild horse advocacy groups to find a better solution. Shortly after the recommendation was made, the BLM released a statement that it had no intentions of destroying healthy animals. However, budget legislation currently tied up in the Senate would allow a provision to be made for the BLM to sell or destroy healthy animals at its discretion to help reach appropriate management levels.
Wild horses in the United States have always been a contentious issue and there are few clear solutions to a complicated problem. Author and researcher David Phillips may have said it best in an interview with Outside magazine: “We passed a law that protected the myth of wild horses but didn’t address the biology. That’s what we’re facing now.”
[Wild Horse & Burro Advisory Board – Oct. 19, 2017, release by Board member Ben Masters]