The Bureau of Land Management continues to pursue an aggressive roundup schedule, capturing and warehousing wild horses and burros by the thousands in already overcrowded holding facilities, despite lawmakers already having appropriated millions of dollars for safe, proven and humane fertility control.
That includes more than 1,000 wild horses being removed from public lands in Colorado just between August and September.
Faced with the swelling cost to taxpayers of wild horses living out their lives in government holding facilities, as well as with growing numbers of federally protected horses on the range, the U.S. House in 2017 voted to allow BLM to euthanize tens of thousands of captured wild horses.
In the end, thankfully, the Senate backed away from killing the horses but lawmakers sent a clear message that something needed to be done and called on groups fighting to protect the horses to meet with a diverse group of public land stakeholders to come up with non-lethal, long-term solutions together.
That near tragedy brought animal welfare groups, including Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation, to the table with other rangeland stakeholders, including public lands ranchers with whom they’d long been at odds, in an effort to find common ground.
We presented lawmakers with a scientific model created with ecologists and economists that showed how a robust program of fertility control could be a key part of slowing herd growth, phasing out often deadly helicopter roundups that infuriate the public, and saving taxpayer money over time.
Congress has since invested millions of dollars in the idea and made clear how it was to be used. In their joint Fiscal Year 2021 explanatory statement, the House and Senate Interior Appropriations Committees wrote most recently, “The Committees expect this strategy to continue and to include a robust expansion of fertility control utilizing methods that are proven, safe, effective, and humane.”
Wholesale change cannot happen overnight — but there’s little sign it’s happening at all.
In June, BLM’s roundup calendar called for only 2,405 mares to be treated with fertility control this year out of the agency-estimated 86,000 wild horses and burros on the range. By Aug. 30, the number of mares that the agency planned to treat had been cut to just 1,172.
At the same time, BLM plans to capture almost 17,000 wild horses and burros this year. That includes an additional 6,000 that, in August, the agency announced it would remove from the range due to climate change-driven drought across the West.
Neither climate change nor drought are new to the West’s fragile rangelands, yet BLM has failed to be proactive by treating mares with fertility control in order to slow herd growth, or even by putting into place contingency plans for emergency conditions.
In almost all instances, BLM will remove the additional wild horses from their home ranges without treating mares with fertility control, then releasing them – all but guaranteeing that helicopters will soon return to the same places to remove more wild horses at taxpayer expense and put more captured horses at risk of falling into the foreign slaughter pipeline through failed adoptions and sales.
The agency’s practice of reactionary, roundup-only management will only result in BLM continuing to chase and briefly achieve agency-set “Appropriate Management Levels” on some of the 177 Herd Management Areas in 10 states. Most advocates believe that the levels are set arbitrarily low.
If mares are not treated with fertility control to slow reproduction on the range and released, even in emergency situations, these roundups will be followed by the increases to the herd populations, and then, as usual, BLM returning to remove and place more wild horses alongside more than 50,000 already in off-range holding.
While BLM works to stabilize herd numbers through the use of fertility control, it must also begin viewing Herd Management Areas in a more holistic way. The agency should take into consideration the full impact of the multiple uses required by law and allocate an equitable share of resources to the wild horses and burros. As it stands, privately owned livestock vastly outnumber wild horses and burros even on the Herd Management Areas set aside for them.
For more than 20 years, Return to Freedom and a growing chorus of advocacy organizations and horse-loving Americans have called for the use of safe, proven and humane fertility control as a better way to manage wild horses on the range, where they belong.
Congress must hold BLM’s feet to the fire on its implementation now. Otherwise, the agency will continue throwing good money after bad, removing wild horses and burros from their home ranges while failing to address reproduction.
America’s wild horses deserve far better.
Neda DeMayo, of Lompoc, Calif., is the founder and president of Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation, a national nonprofit advocacy organization.