Feds’ Utah horse sterilizations draw two lawsuits alleging inhumane treatment

Five horses died during a recent roundup, including three euthanized for poor health.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) This Sept. 15, 2015, file photo shows wild horses runing in their pen as they are cared for in the Bureau of Land Management's off-range corral, located on a 32-acre private ranch in Axtell, Utah. A roundup that ended this week of horses from the Confusion herd near Milford gathered 304 horses for purposes of sterilizing mares using a controversial medical procedure to reduce the population on rangelands. Five died in the roundup, three from euthanasia because of poor health.

Two separate lawsuits were filed Thursday over a wild horse roundup in Utah, alleging the Bureau of Land Management’s plan to surgically sterilize some of the mares is inhumane, unnecessary and a violation of federal law.

Charged with managing the West’s free-roaming wild horses and burros, the BLM this week completed its planned gather of hundreds of horses off the range in the Confusion Herd Management Area near the Nevada state line in Millard County. The gather is part of the BLM’s stepped-up efforts to remove “excess” wild horses from Western rangelands.

Under the BLM’s plan for the Confusion herd now being contested in court, the agency will sterilize 17 of the captured mares and return them to the range, then repeat that process periodically over the 10-year life of the project.

“It’s unacceptable for the BLM to continue to disregard science and animal welfare by galloping ahead with its plan to conduct risky, painful and invasive surgeries on wild horses,” said Brieanah Schwartz, policy counsel for the American Wild Horse Campaign (AMWC). “The BLM’s decision is particularly egregious in light of humane, scientifically-recommended, and cost-effective management alternatives such as the PZP birth control vaccine.”

A co-plaintiff in AWHC’s suit is a Syracuse-based photographer and author Robert Hammer who is on a mission to visit all 19 of Utah’s horse herd management areas, or HMAs, to photograph their horses and blog about the experience.

AMWC filed its suit in Washington, D.C., federal court, while another group, Return to Freedom, sued separately in California, the state where that group is based and maintains sanctuaries occupied by 500 wild horses and burros.

The BLM defended its effort as legal and sound.

“Our science-based decisions are legally compliant and based on input from career subject matter experts and the public,” said spokesman Richard Packer. “The BLM supports research, development and application of effective fertility control methods that can safely and humanely limit herd growth over the long term, enabling the agency to maintain healthy herds on healthy rangelands for the enjoyment of this and future generations.”

The agency provided some details on the Confusion gather, which ended Wednesday after helicopter wranglers herded 304 horses into pens over several days. The plan called for removing 500 horses, but the crews fell short of that target, which was to be expected, according to BLM spokeswoman Lisa Reid.

“This particular area is extremely difficult to gather. The horses are real leery of any type of activity in the area because they are so remote,” Reid said. “You’ve got lots of vehicles coming in and activity and so [the horses] just start spreading. We gathered what we could and we’ll do a flight in the next month or two to do a population inventory to see if the horses have moved back in.”

Prior to the gather, the Confusion herd numbered 661 horses, about six times the BLM’s target population set at 75 to 115, according to the BLM’s wild horse program. Officials say there are far too many horses on Utah rangelands than these lands can sustain, especially in times of severe drought. The unsustainable situation was reflected in the poor body condition most of the captured horses displayed, according to Reid.

The captured horses were transported to a contract corral in Axtell and it will be months before any mares are sterilized.

“We still have to wait to make sure that the mares are healthy enough because a lot of these mares that came in” too low on the agency’s rating scale to undergo any medical procedure,” Reid said. Additionally, “We have to make sure that they’re not pregnant. If they are, we let them foal out. There’s so many steps that have to take place.”

Five horses died in the roundup. Three were euthanized because they were in such a poor health, a foal was put down because it sustained a disabling leg fracture. The fifth horse fatally injured itself when it panicked as it was being herded through a chute. Many of the horses came off the range in poor body conditions, reflecting the impact of a severe drought.

“When we were out there, the dust was incredible and not having any sort of sustainable moisture in two or three years, that’s really played havoc on the range,” Reid said.

Wild horses and burros have been protected under federal law since 1971 and its the BLM job to manage free-roaming populations, mostly in Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. Without natural predators or legal hunting, horse number keep climbing, resulting in a costly, never-ending cycle of roundups.

Fertility control is regarded as the best alternative to roundups, but horse advocates contend permanent sterilization is neither safe nor appropriate, and insist injected fertility vaccines are a more humane option.

Under President Donald Trump, however, the Interior Department has all but abandoned vaccines because they are difficult to administer and require annual boosters to remain effective. So the agency has turned to ovariectomies, drawing objections from lawmakers and animal welfare advocates.

“BLM is marching blindly into another management dead-end, risking the lives of federally protected wild mares at the expense of taxpayers who vehemently oppose such surgeries,” said president and founder of Return to Freedom Neda DeMayo. “RTF strongly supports safe, proven fertility control vaccines that are a humane and practical way to slow herd growth and finally phase out BLM’s decades-long practice of capturing and removing wild horses from their ranges.”

Two years ago the BLM initiated experiments on Oregon’s wild horses to study the safety and efficacy of the sterilization procedure, but withdrew the plan under legal pressure brought by the same groups suing this week.

The new suits say the BLM violated various federals laws and its own policies in approving plans to surgically sterilize wild mares. The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act obligates the BLM to protect these animals “from capture, branding, harassment or death.”

The American Wild Horse Campaign filed its suit in Washington D.C. hoping to take a national approach to the controversy. It seeks a judge’s order barring the BLM from using surgical measures on the many public lands where it manages wild horses.

“If BLM is permitted to conduct these procedures in the Confusion HMA, it will rely on this action as precedent to support future use of this procedure across the country,” states the AWHC suit. “BLM’s prior conduct and program decision making, and specifically that with regard to ovariectomy via colpotomy, reveals that the agency has been, and is currently, engaged in a nationwide effort to utilize this inhumane procedure to permanently sterilize wild mares.”