In a report quietly slipped to Congress, feds call for massive roundups of wild horses on public lands

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Wild horses from Utah’s Swasey herd are rounded up by Cattoor Livestock Roundup Co in the West Desert near the Swasey Mountains Thursday February 14, 2013. Under the Bureau of Land Management operation 50 miles west of Delta, helicopter wranglers gathered 262 horses. One hundred will be released back into the Swasey Herd Management Area — one of Utah’s 19 HMAs on federal land. Many of the horses released will be mares treated with the contraceptive Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP-22).

Wild horse advocates are condemning a report the Bureau of Land Management quietly submitted to Congress that calls for massive removals of wild horses from public lands in Utah and nine other Western states.

Groups derided the 24-page document as a “roadmap for destruction of America’s wild free-roaming horse and burros” because it calls for permanent sterilization, euthanasia and “sale without limitation,” a euphemism for slaughter.

The report lays out several options for reducing the number of horses roaming public lands to populations the BLM has determined to be the “appropriate management level,” or AML, pegged at between 17,000 and 27,000 — a number that horse groups say is not compatible with the long-term survival of wild equines.

“That’s the number that existed [on the range] in 1971 when Congress acted to protect them because they were fast disappearing,” said Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, based in California. “The number BLM deems appropriate is the extinction level. It’s a nonsense document. It’s more kowtowing to the livestock industry and sending the bill to taxpayers for rounding these horses up.”

The 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act already authorizes slaughter and sale of “excess” horses, but Congress has barred these practices for the past decade.

‘New direction’

The BLM report, which was obtained by E&E News and posted Friday, asks Congress to lift those restrictions and amend the law to provide the agency greater latitude to dispose of horses, such as lowering the minimum age to sell a horse from 10 to 5 years and raising the four-horse limit on individuals buying horses.

The document lays out options for permanently reducing horse numbers to “appropriate” levels in 117 designated horse management areas covering 27 million acres of public land. Nineteen of these areas are in Utah, spanning 2 million acres.

Its findings and recommendations align with what Utah state officials have sought, along with solutions presented at last year’s Wild Horse Summit, sponsored by Utah State University in Salt Lake City.

Attendees, such as Utah Rep. Chris Stewart, argued that wild horses are proliferating at unsustainable rates, now at 83,000 animals, more than triple the upper range of those 1971 management numbers.

Stewart’s office did not respond to request for comment Friday.

Depleted range conditions are displacing livestock, much to the dismay of public-lands ranchers and rural county commissioners who have taken the BLM to court over the issue. The reports also notes damaging effects the herds have on wildlife.

“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,” it states.

Some of habitat areas are already severely degraded and horses are dying from lack of forage and water.

“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,” the report continues. “The most inhumane and costly solution is to continue to take no decisive action.”

But the BLM’s proposed solutions are neither humane nor politically viable, Roy complained.

Specter of slaughter

Advocacy groups object to the goal of returning to previously set population levels, arguing those numbers are not based on sound science and instead place arbitrary ceilings on herd sizes that are not compatible with healthy genetic diversity.

Depending on which of four options in the report the BLM adopts, reaching the lower numbers could take between six to 12 years.

Most objectionable, horse advocates say, is the option of unrestricted sales, which would likely fast track horses to slaughter, and the notion of euthanizing healthy horses that can’t be adopted.

Other more palatable proposals, they contend, include boosting adoptions by paying people $1,000 to take in a horse that would otherwise cost the government $48,000 for lifetime pasturing.

The report highlights an array of problems with the status quo to illustrate the BLM’s call for a new direction, including spiraling costs.

Nearly 60 percent of the program’s $81 million budget is spent on pasturing horses for life; currently 46,000 live in off-range pastures, a number that has declined in recent years as the BLM has cut back on roundups. Still the cost of caring for all the horses currently in custody could top $1 billion over the course of their lives.

The BLM’s wild horse advisory board never had a chance to vet the report before its release, according to Ginger Kathrens, who serves as the humane advocate on the board. She disputed several of its findings.

“These federally protected animals are being blamed for rangeland health problems caused by welfare ranching on public lands, and are falsely called ‘starving’ and ‘overpopulated’ as an alarmist tactic to remove them from their home ranges,” said Kathrens, a filmmaker who heads the Colorado Springs-based Cloud Foundation.

‘Free-romping nature’

The option most in line with horse advocates’ position calls for continued use of the fertility vaccine PZP. While the report said the vaccines are a key tool, they also have serious limitations.

“In order to maintain zero growth in the existing population it would be necessary to capture most wild horses every year for the administration of fertility control to target mares. This is not operationally feasible,” it says.

But Kathrens contends the report overstates the costs of fertility control, while downplaying its efficacy and benefits.

“The report is full of errors,” Kathrens said. A dose of PZP costs just $27 and versions of the fertility vaccine are now effective for multiple years, she added.

Another option calls for sterilizing 18,000 horses a year until lower management levels are reached, then spay and geld as needed to maintain those numbers. That tactic is unacceptable to most horse advocacy groups.

“Surgical sterilization will destroy their wild and free-romping nature, which is protected under the law,” Roy said. “You will have a bunch of pasture horses. It’s way more dangerous on wild horses and wreaks havoc on their hormonal system.”