The Trump administration plans to test a single-dose birth-control vaccine that could help control growing wild horse and burro herds. At issue is a research project that would be conducted by the Bureau of Land Management and the Agriculture Department to test the one-dose oocyte growth factor vaccine on about 16 mares that have already been removed from overcrowded federal rangelands.
BLM says the vaccine holds the promise of rendering mares infertile for three years or longer. Currently, the most common birth-control vaccine for wild horse populations is porcine zona pellucida, or PZP, which lasts for only about a year and requires multiple doses.
BLM late Friday issued a final environmental assessment and decision record signed by BLM Nevada Director Jon Raby advancing the plan. The decision is open for administrative protests for 30 days.
BLM estimates there are more than 88,000 wild horses and burros trampling federal herd management areas — more than three times the number of animals the rangelands can sustain without damaging vegetation, soils and other resources.
The final EA and decision record follow President Trump's fiscal 2021 budget request last month that referred to wild horses and burros as an "existential threat" to the health of federal rangelands. It asks Congress for an additional $15 million to take steps to increase roundups and fund research for more effective methods of sterilization and birth-control techniques
If successful, the one-dose vaccine by itself would not be enough to reduce herds to appropriate management levels. But it would help to control populations once they have reached sustainable levels.
The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's National Wildlife Research Center, which will partner with BLM on the one-dose study, has tested a different version of the proposed vaccine. It required multiple doses but lasted two years.
If the latest one-dose vaccine proves effective, BLM will still need to go through a "separate decision-making process" and site-specific analysis before using it on wild horses on the range, the final EA says.
The plan to test 16 mares — currently being held at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City, Nev., as part of an inmate program to train the wild horses for adoption — includes a provision to study the behavior of the treated mares for three years against a "control" group of 16 untreated mares.
Meanwhile, there is no shortage of calls for action. One of the latest comes from Utah Sen. Mike Lee (R), who is proposing that Congress allow the Interior Department to take dramatic steps to reduce wild horse and burro herds on federal rangelands.
Lee wants to allow the Interior secretary to exempt the use of helicopters and other motorized vehicles in animal roundups from National Environmental Policy Act requirements. He also wants to waive NEPA mandates regarding sterilization of the animals, as long as the procedure is performed by a "licensed professional."
Lee's proposal is included in an amendment to a broader energy package led by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and the committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. The full Senate is expected to vote on the package this week.
Lee's amendment, which is not expected to be approved, would allow the NEPA waiver after the secretary determines "that an overpopulation of wild free-roaming horses or burros exists on a given area of public land, and that action is necessary to remove excess horses or burros."
Source; E&E News
The Bureau of Land Management appears to have adopted acting chief William Perry Pendley's position that the growing number of wild horses and burros is perhaps the biggest threat to the health of federal rangelands. President Trump's proposed fiscal 2021 budget requests Congress provide an additional $15.3 million for BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program — to $116.8 million from $101.5 million in the current budget cycle.
BLM estimates there are more than 88,000 wild horses and burros trampling federal herd management areas — more than three times the number of animals the rangelands can sustain without damaging vegetation, soils and other resources. Pendley has said the 88,000 wild horses and burros in the West pose an "existential threat" to federal rangelands.
Congress appears to agree the issue is worthy of additional funding. Congress allocated $101.5 million in fiscal 2020 for BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program, which was roughly $21 million more than in fiscal 2019. But appropriators withheld $21 million for the program in fiscal 2020 until 60 days "after the Bureau submits a comprehensive and detailed plan for an aggressive, non-lethal population control strategy".
Congress requested the plan from BLM early last year; it directed that, among other things, BLM outline specific strategies, and the estimated costs, to reduce herd sizes.
That plan was due to Congress last August; BLM is expected to finalize and submit the plan in the coming weeks. Pendley has estimated it will cost $5 billion and take 15 years to reduce growing herds on federal rangelands to sustainable levels
Source: E&E News
The Bureau of Land Management is taking the initial steps to overhaul grazing regulations on public lands, a flashpoint issue that fueled the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and the 2016 standoff at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
The BLM is beginning a “scoping” process that will help shape the new regulations, according to a notice scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Jan. 21.
The grazing regulations apply to an area nearly the size of Texas, or about 155 million acres of federal land across the lower 48 states, mainly in the West. Grazing influences the politics of public lands management and the land’s ability to withstand climate change.
Cattle eat grass and other plants while trampling soils that support wildlife on federal lands. Grazing also affects the spread of invasive plant species and rangeland wildfire, and it has effects on sage-grouse habitat, water use, water quality, biological diversity, and ecosystem resiliency in the face of climate change, according to scientific research from Oregon State University, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies.
Modernizing Grazing Rules
The BLM in its Federal Register notice said it is overhauling the regulations in part to “modernize” them, improve grazing permitting efficiency, and comply with a 2014 federal law that exempts some grazing permits and leases from environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act. The agency said it will also include 2016 Government Accountability Office recommendations to prevent unauthorized grazing on federal lands.
A 2016 GAO report issued after the Malheur standoff recommended that the federal government keep records of all incidents of unauthorized grazing on federal land, update penalties for violations, and revise grazing regulations to reflect the best ways that federal agencies can resolve conflicts between the BLM and ranchers who let their livestock roam on federal lands without a permit.
Among the flashpoints for the Malheur standoff was tension between the BLM and ranchers who had been illegally grazing their cattle on federal lands. Similar tensions triggered the 1970s Sagebrush Rebellion, in which ranchers protested BLM grazing policy and federal ownership of public lands in the West.
The BLM’s acting director, William Perry Pendley, has been a champion of sagebrush rebels for decades. His Twitter handle is @Sagebrush_Rebel, and he advocated for grazers’ rights as president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which represents ranchers in cases against the BLM. The bureau declined to answer questions about the overhaul Friday, providing a press release instead.
“This rulemaking effort is designed to strengthen and improve our administration of grazing permits across the West, and we welcome public and stakeholder ideas and perspectives,” Casey B. Hammond, acting assistant Interior secretary of land and minerals management, said in the statement.
Cutting Out Public Input?
“Changes to the regulations are a big deal for the West,” said Greta Anderson, deputy director for the Western Watersheds Project, which launched a court challenge to George W. Bush administration efforts to relax compliance requirements for grazing regulation. Anderson said she worries the language of the BLM’s announcement suggests the agency may reduce standards for land health.
The announcement says BLM will “explore ways to use livestock grazing to reduce wildfire risk and improve rangeland health,” but Anderson said there is little scientific evidence that shows grazing can accomplish that. She also said she worries BLM may reduce opportunities for public involvement in grazing decisions. The BLM’s announcement says the agency seeks to ensure “adequate” public participation “without unduly burdening administrative processes.”
“Ranchers are going to have more of a free pass to do what they want, and the opportunity for the public to push back on their narrow interests will be limited,” Anderson said, based on the text of the notice.
‘Good Regulations and Good Processes’
Mary Jo Rugwell, who retired last year as director of the BLM in Wyoming, said the BLM’s existing grazing regulations work well if the bureau enforces them. “We have good regulations and good processes,” she said. “My concern is that this is an effort to loosen the regulations in a way that might not be good for the public lands.” The BLM hasn’t released a timeline for completing its overhaul of the grazing regulations.
Bob Abbey, who served as BLM director in the Obama administration, said grazing regulations need to be updated to account for various court rulings and changes in federal law. “I am supportive of new language that provides the agency with greater flexibility within grazing permits to allow for changes in range conditions and improving efficiencies in the permitting processes, as long as there is continued emphasis on land health,” Abbey said.
A public comment period on the grazing regulations overhaul ends on March 6 following four public meetings in February. Those meetings will be in small, relatively isolated Western cities: Miles City, Mont.; Las Cruces, N.M.; Elko, Nev.; and Casper, Wyo.
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