Joanna Grossman: Failed BLM policies, not wild horses, are destroying the landscape

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A foal and it's mother in the Onaqui wild horse herd, about 60 miles southwest of Tooele, near Simpson Springs, Thursday, June 5, 2014.

Poll after poll shows that Americans overwhelmingly cherish horses and support protecting them from harm.

That belief is reflected in the landmark Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, federal legislation that mandates these animals be “protected from capture … harassment or death” due to their unique status as “living symbols of … the West.”

Sadly, that directive has been largely ignored by the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency entrusted with managing most of our country’s wild equines. As a result of the agency’s flawed policies, wild horses have seen their designated habitat shrink by nearly 20 million acres since the 1971 law’s passage, and their numbers dwindle in select herds to unsustainable levels that threaten genetic viability.

Meanwhile, cattle, which outnumber horses and burros by 28 to 1 — even 90 to 1 in some years — are causing serious environmental degradation, as underscored by a United Nations study that called livestock “the major contributor to soil erosion on agricultural lands” in the United States.

Yet if we are to believe two recent opinion columns in The Salt Lake Tribune, authored by Acting BLM Director William Perry Pendley and University of Utah senior Saige Bowen, horses are invading and trampling our public rangelands and the most “humane” approach is to round them up and warehouse these hardy animals in government-run corrals as the only alternative to starvation.

Among the BLM’s accomplishments touted by Pendley are accelerated removals and fertility control. In reality, the BLM spends less than 1 percent of its Wild Horse and Burro program budget on proven and safe fertility control methods such as the porcine zona pellucida (PZP) immunocontraceptive vaccine. Instead of pursuing options that enjoy broad support in the scientific community and among animal protection groups, the BLM has repeatedly proposed using an outdated and highly controversial surgical procedure on a herd in Oregon.

The procedure, “ovariectomy via colpotomy,” involves blindly inserting a metal rod-like tool to sever and remove the ovaries of wild mares while they remain conscious. Under the BLM’s current research proposal, as many as 25 ovariectomies would be performed each day in nonsterile conditions with minimal post-operative care.

The agency’s previous experimental goal involved quantifying the number of aborted foals resulting from the surgeries — a particularly gruesome aspect that Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, noted during a recent congressional hearing.

Despite opposition from the public, federal lawmakers, the National Academy of Sciences, veterinarians, university researchers and a preliminary injunction issued by a federal court, the BLM is floating new plans to potentially implement the same risky sterilization surgeries on herds in Wyoming and Utah. The agency has even found an ally in Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, who has repeatedly endorsed bankrolling mass sterilizations.

The BLM continues to view wild horses, who occupy only 12 percent of the vast expanse of the West managed by the agency, as an “existential threat” (as Pendley put it) to ecological health. But evaluating wild horse populations over varied terrain is far more complex than the BLM would care to admit. During the 19th century, an estimated 2 million wild horses and burros roamed the West. The current national “appropriate management level” of about 27,000 animals was deemed so critically low several decades ago that it prompted federal protections to prevent wild horses from disappearing from the landscape altogether. More recently, the National Academy of Sciences determined that the BLM’s designated management levels appear to be arbitrary and not supported by science.

Among the populations targeted for roundups by the BLM are Utah’s famous Onaqui wild horses, admired by tourists worldwide for their motley hues. Far from starving on the range, these animals have adapted well to often harsh and desolate conditions.

In other herd areas, footage of more aggressive roundups has documented foals struggling to keep up with their mothers, before ultimately being separated, helicopters driving panicked mustangs into barbed wire fencing, and horses literally being run to death.

The BLM won’t solve this situation by adhering to a failed and increasingly abusive management plan. Unfortunately, the interests of these free-roaming (often in name only) horses are being forfeited to pacify the livestock industry.

Joanna Grossman

Joanna Grossman, Ph.D., is the equine program manager for the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute