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Grace Kuhn: Brutal federal plan for Utah’s wild horses must be stopped

There are better, more humane ways of controlling mustang populations.

Photo courtesy of American Wild Horse Campaign. Wild horses stampede through barbed wire during a roundup in Utah's West Desert. Horse advocates castigated the Bureau of Land Management's helicopter contractor for engaging in practices they say recklessly endangered wild horses being removed from public lands this month.

Utahns need to know what’s happening to their horses. It’s not pretty.

Right now, helicopter crews hired by the U.S. government are chasing down mustangs in the Confusion Herd Management Area, which sits on nearly 300,000 acres of public land 30 miles north of Garrison. The plan, developed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, is to corral nearly 500 horses from the range and remove them from the land.

These helicopter roundups are brutal. Horses are terrorized as the loud machines swoop down and chase them into waiting temporary corrals. Mustangs are bruised, cut and suffer broken limbs as they rush into the corrals. Some have broken their necks and skulls and died as they crash into the metal gates.

And the plan gets worse. Of the horses that survive removal from the range, mares will be sterilized using the most invasive procedure imaginable, a “blind surgery” in which a veterinarian inserts his or her arm into a mares’ abdominal cavity through an incision in the vaginal wall, manually locates the ovaries, then twists, severs and removes them using a rodlike tool with a chain on the end.

The many risks of this procedure include infection, trauma, postoperative pain, hemorrhage, abdominal adhesions, evisceration, abscess formation, abortion, neuropathies, even death. It will also inalterably destroy the wild, free-roaming behaviors of mares that survive the surgery, because removal of the ovaries halts production of the reproductive hormones that drive the horses’ natural behaviors.

The BLM knows all of this. In 2013, in a report commissioned by the agency itself, the National Academy of Sciences, explicitly warned the BLM against employing the surgery due to the dangers. Further, two major academic institutions, Oregon State University and Colorado State University, terminated partnerships with the BLM amid controversy over previous ovariectomy attempts.

There are far more humane options to the procedure, including a nonsurgical approach that renders mares sterile without removing their ovaries. Yet, despite more humane alternatives and the advice of veterinary experts, the BLM continues to pursue using the procedure.

This is even more disturbing, given the agency’s failure to adequately use the PZP fertility control vaccine, which would allow it to manage wild horse populations humanely, on the range, without cruel, expensive roundups and inhumane surgeries.

Last month, close to five dozen lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate, spearheaded by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., sent a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt urging him to drop plans to pursue ovariectomy via colpotomy on the Confusion wild horses and to pursue more humane solutions, such as PZP, which is cost-effective and backed with 30 years of research.

The BLM should follow the advice of experts, the urging of Congress, and the wishes of the vast majority of Americans, who want to see wild horses retained on public land. But the agency has steadily ignored all of these calls.

In the meantime, wild horse advocates will continue to fight for these animals.

The American Wild Horse Campaign and its coalition partners successfully challenged the BLM’s previous attempts to sterilize wild mares in Oregon, and we will do the same in Utah and elsewhere.

Grace Kuhn

Grace Kuhn is the communications director for the American Wild Horse Campaign and an avid traveler to Utah public lands.

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