Under a recently released proposal from the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), thousands of wild Mustangs would be removed from the range in Wyoming.
By Dr. Joanna Grossman
The image of the bucking bronco that is so intertwined with Wyoming’s heritage underscores the pivotal role that horses — both wild and domestic — have played throughout the state’s history. Today, Wyoming is home to several areas where the public can see the majesty of wild horses firsthand – from the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range north of Lovell to the “checkerboard” lands in the southern part of the state. These areas are popular tourist draws where visitors gather to see Mustangs in their natural habitat.
Sadly, under a recently released proposal from the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), thousands of wild horses would be removed from the range, including all of the horses that currently reside in the Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Loop. While acknowledging that the area offers unique sightseeing and recreational opportunities that would be lost, the BLM is intent on proceeding. Other components of the plan include eliminating a staggering 2.5 million acres that are currently available for wild horse use, warehousing additional horses in government-run corrals that cost taxpayers $50 million each year, and employing surgical sterilization methods that Americans overwhelmingly oppose.
Why is the BLM moving full steam ahead with this ill-conceived plan? The proposal comes as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Rock Springs Grazing Association (RSGA), a livestock industry group that manages a small portion of the private parcels in the checkerboard region, where federal and private allotments alternate in a mosaic pattern. Historically, RSGA permitted wild horses to traverse private lands, but the group has since changed course. RSGA’s own livestock roam freely on the grazing association’s property and on the government-owned land nearby.
In settling the RSGA’s lawsuit, the BLM agreed to consider several alternatives for managing wild horses in the checkerboard. The BLM’s preferred option, however, prioritizes livestock interests over the agency’s statutory mandate to preserve wild horses in their natural setting and protect them from harassment and death. In a 2016 ruling, a federal appeals court addressed management of wild horses in the checkerboard, finding that the BLM violated the law by removing wild horses on public land to satisfy private landowners who did not want the horses straying on their property — in essence, treating public lands as if they were private.
Fast-forward to the present with the BLM’s latest attempt to eliminate wild horses from Wyoming’s landscape. The agency has solicited public input for its plan, but has failed to disclose the full context. For starters, Occidental Petroleum, the largest private landowner in the checkerboard, is considering selling its property to the state of Wyoming. The stakes are high. If the sale goes through, Wyoming would have “the opportunity to assemble one of the largest contiguous pieces of public land in the continental United States,” Gov. Mark Gordon explained.
Yet the BLM’s proposal makes no mention of this possible sale and fails to consider alternative management strategies, such as working with the state of Wyoming to allow herds to live on this wide swath of public land.
To manage the few remaining horses in the checkerboard, the BLM is considering using an outdated and invasive procedure known as ovariectomy via colpotomy to surgically sterilize wild horses on the range. Numerous federal lawmakers and veterinarians have criticized the agency for pursuing this risky surgery, which involves blindly inserting a metal rod-like tool to sever and remove the ovaries of wild mares while they remain conscious. A federal court blocked the BLM from proceeding with a previous attempt to carry out experimental ovariectomies on wild horses in Oregon in non-sterile conditions and with minimal post-operative care.
After receiving a $21 million windfall from Congress for fiscal year 2020, the BLM should use that money to implement scientifically proven and effective immunocontraceptive vaccines on a large scale to manage horses on the range. As members of Congress stressed in a recent letter to the agency, in fiscal year 2018 the BLM administered only a few hundred doses of the PZP immunocontraceptive vaccine on a small percentage of the 177 herd management areas that it oversees in the western United States. Instead of adopting humane and safe fertility control methods, the BLM would prefer to chase wild horses with helicopters and sequester them in short- and long-term holding facilities — all on the taxpayer’s dime.
Such “gathers” (as the BLM euphemistically refers to roundup operations) are typically brutal for the horses. During a 2014 checkboard roundup, for instance, several wild horses died after breaking their necks. This type of management strategy is hardly worth supporting. Wyoming is home to some of our country’s most unique and iconic herds. We can’t let the BLM hasten their disappearance from the landscape.
Joanna Grossman, Ph.D., is equine program manager for the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute.