Feds to begin surgical sterilizations on wild horses, starting with a Utah herd

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Wild horses from Utah’s Swasey herd are rounded up by Cattoor Livestock Roundup Co. in the West Desert, Feb. 14, 2013. In this operation, the Bureau of Land Management administered a fertility vaccine to most of the gathered mares and returned them to the range. Now the Trump administration plans to turn to surgical sterilization after abandoning fertility vaccines, starting with Utah’s Confusion herd later this month.

Over the objections of animal welfare advocates, the Bureau of Land Management plans to initiate a controversial program of surgically sterilizing female wild horses, starting in Utah as soon as this month with the planned roundup of the Confusion herd in the West Desert.

The sterilization program drew a stiff rebuke from a bipartisan group of 58 federal lawmakers in a letter sent Thursday to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, demanding he avoid using a procedure that has not been proven safe — known as ovariectomy via colpotomy — on protected wild horses.

“This attempt to use taxpayer dollars to carry out cruel and inhumane procedures on wild horses must not move forward,” said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., one of the letter’s signatories. “I will always fight to protect these majestic animals that have become symbols of the American West.”

Titus, who represents Las Vegas, is the lead signatory of the letter, which no member of Utah’s delegation joined.

Utah Rep. Chris Stewart, whose district covers most of Utah’s wild horse country in the West Desert, has applauded the BLM’s horse-removal campaigns expanded under William Perry Pendley.

Pendley is a former Colorado property rights lawyer whose leadership of the BLM has never been confirmed by the Senate and has been ruled illegal by a federal judge. He contends horse “proliferation” is an “existential threat” to the West’s rangelands that must be addressed through aggressive action.

The sterilization plan was disclosed last month in an environmental assessment of the BLM’s 10-year plan for managing the Confusion herd, whose numbers are nearly five times what the agency deems is appropriate. While most of these horses will be sent to off-range corrals to live out their days in captivity, some of the mares will have their ovaries crushed and then be returned to the range.

“A veterinarian inserts what’s essentially a metal rod through the vaginal incision into the abdominal cavity,” said Joanna Grossman, who heads the Animal Welfare Institute’s equine program. “Once the veterinarian’s arm is in there with this metal rod that has a kind of a loop at the end, he or she tries to feel for the ovaries and then using this metal rod essentially crushes and severs them and then removes them.”

It is not a new procedure, but it is rarely used and should be avoided in “non-ideal” conditions, according to Grossman.

“In general, ovariectomies via colpotomy are infrequently performed on horses as the risks can be serious – e.g., evisceration, hemorrhaging, infection, and even death,” the Congressional letter stated. “Other forms of ovariectomy have been employed on domestic horses and may be safer under certain controlled conditions, but performing these often complicated and invasive procedures on ungentled, wild horses poses significant welfare risk. From a broader perspective, the BLM’s insistence on ovariectomizing wild horses seems futile at best given that such surgeries cannot practicably or safely be widely implemented on the range in what would likely be nonsterile conditions.”

The BLM declined to comment on the letter.

A few years ago, the BLM planned to experiment with ovariectomies on wild horses in Oregon, but the two research universities involved dropped out and a federal court later blocked the program. Grossman suspects the BLM chose to resurrect the sterilization program in Utah because subsequent legal challenges would be funneled toward the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, rather the more liberal 9th Circuit covering the West Coast states.

The BLM is charged with managing free-roaming wild horses and burros which have been protected under federal law since 1971. But that task has become extremely difficult because populations of these equines have grown exponentially and compete with livestock for forage.

Western lawmakers have long pressured the BLM to dramatically reduce horse numbers. The Trump administration has embraced such a strategy at great cost to taxpayers, but without ever naming a permanent head to the BLM.

“The public has a right to ask, why is the BLM going to pursue such a precedent-setting and sweeping management plan when you don’t even have a director who has been confirmed by the Senate?” Grossman said in reference to the Confusion plan.

One of 19 herd management areas in Utah, the 235,000-acre Confusion management area covers the Confusion, Granite and Middle mountains in western Juab and Millard counties. The BLM has pegged the appropriate population for the herd at between 70 and 115 horses, yet at least 550 inhabit this area, according to the most recent survey. Under the new 10-year plan approved for this herd, the BLM would round up nearly 500 horses starting Nov. 28. This gather would be the fourth targeting a Utah herd this year. With the help of private helicopter-assisted wranglers BLM removed 1,420 horses in the three prior operations, which resulted in the deaths of 17 horses, according to the BLM’s wild horse program.

Seventeen mares are to be sterilized and returned to the range following the upcoming roundup.

“There is so much more we have to do before we can spay them. This is an extremely difficult area to gather horses. It might be next year before we gather enough,” said BLM spokeswoman Lisa Reid. “If we take horses off the range and they have low body scores, we have to keep them for a while before we can do any kind of population growth suppression.”

No pregnant mares or mares under the age of 5 will be treated.

“For any method using surgery or extensive animal handing, a veterinarian will ensure use of appropriate sedation, anesthesia, analgesics and antibiotics,” states the decision document signed by Michael Gates, the BLM’s acting West Desert District manager. “Treated mares will be freeze marked for identification purposes. The surgical procedure will take place at a private veterinarian’s facility to provide for individual care and post operation observation and recovery.”

The site where the sterilizations will occur was not disclosed, but the BLM’s contract corral at Axtell is a strong possibility. No public observation will be allowed, although Gates expects an “unaffiliated, licensed and practicing veterinarian” would be permitted to observe.

The BLM will conduct additional roundups in the fourth and ninth years of the plan, sterilizing 13 mares in each of those operations, with a goal of holding the Confusion herd’s population steady at 92 after the 10th year.

The letter from Congress pointed out that a 2013 National Academy of Sciences study commissioned by the BLM advised against ovariectomies on wild horses because of its risks.

“Indeed, numerous equine veterinarians have criticized the procedure given the risks of pain to the horses subjected to these ovariectomies, the need for lengthy and careful post-operative monitoring, the possibility of severing other organs due to the blind nature of the colpotomy insertion, and the subsequent risks of infection, trauma, or death,” the letter states.

Congress requires any fertility control measure used on wild horses “must be proven, safe, and humane.” The letter contends ovariectomy would not meet that bar and urged expanded use of contraceptive vaccines, such as PZP, which have been proven safe and effective. the House has passed budget language requiring BLM to devote at least $11 million on fertility immunizations.

Under Trump, Interior officials have dismissed PZP because it must re-administered annually to be effective. But Interior’s disdain for noninvasive fertility control will likely change after Jan. 20 when President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in.

Two of the letter’s signers, Sen. Tom Udall and Rep. Deb Haaland, both of New Mexico, are leading prospects for succeeding Bernhardt as Interior secretary in the incoming administration.