This summer, the House Appropriations Committee voted for the first time to authorize killing healthy wild horses and burros. It did so with the full support of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose department bears the responsibility for managing wild horses on public lands.
We are appalled.
On one level, the vote to allow wild-horse killing is easy to understand. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) scheme for managing protected wild horses and burros has never worked well, and has collapsed completely in the last 15 years.
Rounding up wild horses with helicopters and removing most of them for adoption is a strategy whose success depends on the whims of the horse adoption market, and works against wild horse reproductive biology. Adoptions have not kept up with removals, and removals have not kept up with natural growth of wild horse populations on the range.
Today, 46,000 formerly free-roaming wild horses are warehoused in holding facilities, costing taxpayers $60 million a year and counting. At the same time, according to the BLM, the number of horses and burros on the range has more than doubled since 2005-2008.
Something must be done to break out of this costly cycle of futility. Hence, the committee vote. Still, on another level, the committee’s action is bafflingly disingenuous and shortsighted. As a former congressman and governor from the West and a scientist and advocate who share more than a quarter century of engagement with the wild horse issue, we do not believe there is any chance that the public will allow killing of healthy wild horses on this scale. Historically, public outrage has routinely blocked far lesser abuses.
But if other issues conspire to divert public attention from horse-killing, the 20 percent annual growth rate shown by wild horse populations on public lands would refill BLM’s holding facilities to current levels in a mere three years. The killing strategy is no more sustainable than the roundup and adopt strategy.
The wild horse challenge cannot be solved unless wild horse reproduction is managed on the range. Less than a mile from where the House Appropriations Committee debated killing wild horses, experts from all over the world participated in the eighth International Conference in Wildlife Fertility Control. There, researchers from Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, The Humane Society of the United States and the University of Toledo presented data from field trials showing that two doses of a contraceptive vaccine (known as PZP) delivered several years apart can block wild horse pregnancies for five years or longer. The vaccine costs a few hundred dollars for the first dose, but only $25 for the second.
Another research group from Colorado State University, the National Park Service and USDA’s National Wildlife Research Center showed remarkably similar data from wild horse field trials with a different contraceptive vaccine (known as GonaCon). These vaccines, and the data describing their safety and effectiveness, are both well known to the BLM, which has been funding such research for decades. Side effects are minimal, mostly consisting of short-term reactions at the injection site experienced by some horses.
Researchers can still improve these vaccines, and are eager to do that. But it is the job of the BLM to inject these vaccines into enough horses to slow down population growth. Working with the BLM at Cedar Mountains Herd Management Area in Utah, the Tufts/HSUS/Toledo research team showed that it can be done. Enough mares were treated with PZP at a 2012 BLM gather to reduce annual population growth to about 8.5 percent over the two years following — a third of the normal growth rate at that site.
Cedar Mountains is a tough place to work, covering 280 rugged square miles, nearly 60 percent of which is wilderness off-limits to vehicles. If BLM can do it there, they can do it nearly everywhere.
To reduce the number of gathers and the flow of animals into holding, improve the health of the range long-term and find its way out of its perpetual wild horse crisis, the BLM must develop and put into practice locally tailored long-term plans to manage wild horses and burros with fertility control.
Instead of funding horse killing, Congress should insist that management by fertility control gets done, and provide the BLM with the cash to do it.
Bill Richardson has served as a U.S. congressman (1982-1996), U. S. ambassador to the United Nations (1997-1998), secretary of Energy (1998-2000) and governor of New Mexico (2003-2011). With actor and conservationist Robert Redford, he started the Foundation to Preserve New Mexico Wildlife to protect wild horses and provide alternatives to horse slaughter.
Allen Rutberg is director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and a long-time wild horse contraception researcher.
Source: The Hill
The Bureau of Land Management spends about $50 million a year to house and feed more than 46,000 wild horses and burros in corrals. Another 73,000 of the animals roam freely across the western states, producing foals and grazing on public lands that conservationists and federal officials say are quickly deteriorating.
It’s an escalating equine-population problem, and the fiscal 2018 budget President Trump proposed this week suggests a solution: using “humane euthanasia and unrestricted sale of certain excess animals.”
The change could lead to sales of wild horses to slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada, as well as to the culling of herds, to address what the bureau calls an “unsustainable” situation. But it has been condemned by horse and other animal advocacy groups, some of which have consistently resisted efforts to impose limits on an icon of the American West that has been federally protected since 1971.
The Trump proposal notes that the BLM’s wild horse and burro budget has quadrupled since 2000, from $20.4 million then to $80.4 million in 2017, and that most of the money goes to care for animals that reside in taxpayer-funded corrals. The proposed budget anticipates saving $10 million annually by selling some of those animals and by reducing roundups and horse and burro birth-control programs.
The use of euthanasia and sales to manage the population is not a new idea: The 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act permits the interior secretary to remove older and unadoptable animals by those methods. But for much of the past three decades, Congress has used annual appropriations bill riders to prohibit the killing of healthy animals or “sale that results in their destruction for processing into commercial products.” While it is unclear whether lawmakers would now be willing to lift the prohibition, an aide on the House Appropriations Committee said the request would be considered.
Although the last U.S. horse slaughterhouse closed in 2007, meat processing plants in Mexico and Canada slaughter tens of thousands of domestic American horses each year for export to Europe and Asia. And despite the congressional ban, some wild horses sold to private buyers have been slaughtered anyway. In November 2015, federal investigators found that a Colorado rancher to whom the government had sold 1,794 mustangs turned around and sold them to slaughterhouses in Mexico.
As the wild horses and burros, which have no natural predators, have increased in numbers, officials and conservation groups say they have depleted the amount of forage food and water available to native species in the West. That, in turn, has increased the risk of widespread starvation and thirst among these herds and wild animals on public lands.
Wild horse advocates counter that the bureau is pandering to ranchers who view the horses as competition on public range land also used for cattle grazing.
Meanwhile, adoptions by the public — the bureau’s primary program for reducing the population in government corrals — have not increased with the population. Last year, 2,912 wild horses and burros were adopted, up from 2,583 in 2012, according to agency figures.
The budget proposal comes eight months after the bureau’s wild horse and burro advisory board, a volunteer body that makes no binding decisions, sparked an uproar among wild horse advocates by recommending euthanasia or sales for the animals. Subsequent false reports about a looming government plan to kill 45,000 wild horses prompted the BLM, then under the Obama administration, to say it “does not and will not euthanize healthy animals.”
Some board members said their recommendation was made, in part, to shock Congress into doing something about a problem they believe is spiraling out of control.
“All these horses in long-term holding are eating up 60 percent of the wild horse and burro budget. Other things can’t be done well or thoroughly because we’re feeding a lot of stockpiled horses that no one wants,” Julie Weikel, a large-animal veterinarian on the advisory committee, said in an interview this week. “I fully expect a full-court press from the advocates to put the rider back on. But I assure you that will not solve the problem.”
The question of how to address the problem appeared on Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s radar not long after he was confirmed. According to his personal schedule, he held a video call on the topic on March 24 with the BLM’s acting director, Michael Nedd, and several other senior officials.
For more than 40 years, past administrations have tried but failed to control the animals’ numbers. In 2009, then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar proposed that the U.S. government spend roughly $96 million to buy land in the Midwest and East to create two preserves that could each support 3,600 horses. He also suggested that federal officials partner with nonprofit organizations and other private groups to create five additional preserves, so that 25,000 animals would be living on preserves within five years. The government also would aggressively sterilize the horses and burros to keep them from reproducing.
At the time of Salazar’s proposal, about 37,000 horses and burros were roaming and another 32,000 were in holding pens. But the money did not materialize, and the number of animals on public range lands increased sharply. It now is about three times more than officials say is sustainable.
Some animal advocacy groups say the BLM has not proactively pursued horse and burro birth control, though other activist groups have sued the agency over the use of injectable contraception and the spaying of mares. In a statement this week, Matt Bershadker, president and chief executive of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said the animals could be “humanely” managed with fertility control, but the BLM “would rather make these innocent animals pay for draconian budget cuts with their very lives.”
Weikel said she hopes Trump’s budget proposal prompts Congress to consider lifting its usual rider. Considering the proposal, along with the advisory board’s recommendation, “maybe thoughtful people…would realize we have a true problem out there. And we are not using all the tools.” In addition to euthanasia and sales, she said, permanent sterilization should be utilized more.
In a statement, the BLM said its goal “is always to find good homes for the thousands of wild horses and burros gathered from overpopulated herds on our country’s public lands.” It continued, “With an expanded suite of management tools, the BLM can strengthen its efforts to reverse the declining health of our nation’s wild horse and burro herds and manage the public lands on which they and so many other species depend.”
Source: The Washington Post
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