William Perry Pendley: America’s wild horses and burros need our help

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) A wild horse jumps among others near Salt Lake City on July 18, 2018. Harsh drought conditions in parts of the American West are pushing wild horses to the brink and forcing extreme measures to protect them. Federal land managers have begun emergency roundups in the deserts of western Utah and central Nevada.

The Bureau of Land Management, which administers 245 million acres of public land, primarily in the 11 Western states and Alaska, has the federal government’s most difficult mission. Under its statutory “multiple-use, sustained yield” mandate, the BLM manages a breathtaking array of uses of federal lands. Given the passion with which the public embraces those uses, folks sometimes disagree about the decisions the BLM makes.

There is, however, one matter for which the BLM is responsible on which there is unanimity. Today, scientists, veterinarians and federal land managers all agree that America’s wild horses and burros, the rangeland that supports them, as well as the people, communities and indigenous plants and animals across the West affected by them, need our help. That is why I must offer an alternative perspective to the opinion piece authored by Ginger Kathrens (“Wild horses groomed as scapegoats for public land destruction,” Dec. 19)

Since 1971, the BLM, along with the U.S. Forest Service, has been legally required to protect these “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West,” and to manage them as “an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.” When managed wisely, wild horses and burros can thrive in the American West. However, left uncontrolled, herds quickly overpopulate their habitat, overgraze the land and decimate the fragile desert spring ecosystems critical to their survival and that of other species.

This is not just my opinion that wild horses and burros pose an existential threat to our public lands. It is documented reality — established by decades of peer-reviewed research by leading wildlife biologists and range scientists.

Today, the BLM estimates there are nearly 90,000 wild horses and burros on public lands under our jurisdiction – a 50-year high and over three times the population size professional land managers and expert scientists tell us is healthy for the animals and the land.

The nationwide population has more than doubled in just the past 10 years and continues to grow at a rate of 10-15 percent annually — well beyond the sustainable level of just 27,000 animals. Herds are booming on lands with short growing seasons and little water that cannot support them indefinitely. This ecological time bomb is just waiting to explode. We are already seeing animals starving and dying due to a lack of forage and water. This is not responsible management, nor is it humane or compassionate.

The BLM manages livestock grazing as mandated by Congress to ensure sustainable, long-term productivity of public lands. We require ranching families to limit the size of their herds based on rangeland health. We must do the same for wild horse and burro populations.

We also need to remember that the range supports native wildlife — including mule deer, pronghorn antelope and more than 200 other native species of mammals, birds and other wildlife and plants, some of which, including the desert tortoise, are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

No one wins when the range is degraded and destroyed.

In addition, the overpopulation of wild horses and burros could adversely impact private rights and poses a safety risk to human beings near populated areas.

Last year, the American Association of Equine Practitioners and American Veterinary Medication Association — two of the largest organizations of professional veterinarians in the world — issued a joint policy calling for further reducing overpopulation to protect the health and well-being of wild horses and burros on public lands.

The National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board — a panel of nine experts and professionals convened to advise the bureau — endorsed the joint policy in October.

Furthermore, animal welfare organizations such as the ASPCA and Humane Society of the United States have recognized that the prosperity of wild horses and burros on public lands is threatened if herds continue to grow unabated.

Though it can often feel like we’re swimming against the tide, I’m proud of what the BLM has accomplished under the Trump Administration: We’ve accelerated efforts to remove animals from some of the most over-populated herds, expanded the number of herds that are routinely treated with fertility control to reduce future growth, and boosted the number of animals adopted to good homes across the country.

But it will not be easy to reverse overpopulation; we did not get here overnight. Addressing the problem requires a multi-pronged approach that includes expanded adoption and sales of horses gathered from overpopulated herds; increased gathers and increased capacity for off-range holding facilities and pastures; more effective use of fertility control efforts; and improved research, in concert with the academic and veterinary communities to identify more effective contraceptive techniques and strategies.

It will take a sustained effort by the BLM and our partners over multiple years to get herds to sustainable levels.

It’s up to all of us to get this right. We owe the future generations of Americans the opportunity to see healthy wild horses and burros on healthy public rangelands.

William Perry Pendley | BLM deputy director for policy and programs,

William Perry Pendley is deputy director for policy and programs for the Bureau of Land Management.