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Sustainably Managing Wild Horses and Burros by Matt Dominguez

Posted by: | April 6, 2011 Comments Off on Sustainably Managing Wild Horses and Burros by Matt Dominguez |

Concerned about the vanishing population of wild horses and burros on the great plains, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 (WFRHBA or Act).  With this Act, Congress declared that “wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” and therefore deserving of federal protection from abuse and death.  The WFRHBA directs and authorizes the Secretary of the Interior (Secretary) to “protect and manage wild free-roaming horses and burros as components of public lands.”  While on public lands, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is responsible for managing the wild horses and burros (Wild Horse and Burros Program (WHBP)); and the Secretary of Agriculture is responsible for the management of wild horses and burros while on public lands managed by the Forest Service. 

The BLM is responsible for managing “264 million acres of public lands, located primarily in the 12 Western States, containing natural, historical, and cultural resources.”  Its mission is to “sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”  The BLM is also charged with administering several federal statues and regulations, including the Endangered Species Act, General Mining Laws, Federal Land Policy, and the WFRHBA. Lastly, the WHBP is only one of several programs within the BLM.      

According to the BLM, there are 38,400 horse and burros on 28 million acres of public land; 12,000 more than the public lands can support.  Additionally, 32,000 wild horses and burros are currently being held in short-term and long-term holding facilities, at the cost of millions for tax payers.  The cost of the WHBP has increase from $36.4 million in 2007 to $66.1 million dollars in 2010.  In Oct. 2008, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report entitled “Bureau of Land Management: Effective Long-Term Options Needed to Manage Unadoptable Wild Horse” (hereinafter GAO Report).  The GAO Report concluded that “the program is at a critical crossroads [.]” and the current management plan is unsustainable because of the BLM’s on-range and off-range care costs. The Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report entitled “Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse and Burro Program” (hereinafter OIG Report) in Dec. 2010, which found that “… the population [of wild horses and burros] cannot be sustained by the land.”  Additionally, the OIG Report noted that in 2009, the Secretary “recognized that the BLM’s WHBP [is] not sustainable in its current form.”  With over 12,000 more wild horses and burros than public lands can support, stockpiling of wild horses and burros in short and long term facilities, and the increased cost of the BLM’s WHBP, it is clear that the current wild horses and burros management plan is not sustainable for either the animals, tax payers or the ecological future of our public lands.  The BLM will achieve a sustainable WHBP when they can maintain the ecological health of our public lands for future generations and achieve economic well-being, while insuring the survival of a healthy wild horse & burros population, as demanded by the WFRHBA. 

The GAO Report identified several key issues with the current management plan, causing it to be unsustainable:

  • Inaccurate and incomplete on-the-range population counts,
  • Inaccurate and incomplete “appropriate management levels” (AML) for the 28 million acres of public lands with wild horses and burros,    
  • Declining adoptions and sales,
  • Unsuccessful on-the-range population control management plan, and
  • The cost associated with the use of long-term holding facilities

The BLM is not managing our wild horses and burros in a sustainable way, wasting millions of tax payer dollars to the detriment of the animal themselves.  In order for the BLM to get the WHBP back on track, a new management plan needs to be developed, one that addresses and provides for a solution to the issues identified in the GAO report.

The main issue addressed throughout the GAO report is one of reliability; citing the BLM’s improper methodology for determining whether an “overpopulation” of wild horses and burros exists as an example.  The BLM cannot successfully manage an unknown number of wild horses and burros, and without a precise method for counting the number of wild horses and burros on public land, the BLM cannot be sustainable. It is in the best interests of the BLM to develop a new and scientifically based method for counting the current population of wild horses and burros.  Only after an accurate population count is made can the BLM determine whether an “overpopulation” exists and then properly develop Appropriate Management Levels (AML), which are the number of wild horses and burros the public lands can graze without causing harm to the range.

The BLM is required by the WFRHBA to remove all “excess” wild horses and burros from public lands.  Therefore, after using a precise method for determining the exact population of wild horses and burros, if an overpopulation does exists, the BLM must, in a fiscally responsible manner, deal with these excess animals. For the BLM to successfully bring the on-the-range populations to a sustainable level, two things must be addressed: the unsuccessful adoption program and the use of long-term holding facilities.

A significant portion of the BLM’s WHBP budget is used to maintain short and long term holding facilities. These facilities are used to hold all the excess wild horses and burros removed that haven’t been adopted or sold to private parties. To be more sustainable, the BLM needs to phase out the use of long term holding facilities and overhaul the current adoption program.  One alternative to long-term holding facilities and the current adoption program is partnerships.  The BLM should partner with equine welfare non-profits, allowing those non-profits to care for excess wild horses and burros on private land.  Also, these non-profits should be given the authority to adopt out animals.  Under current regulations, no such authority exists and all the wild horses & burros adopted out are through the WHBP adoption program. Although there are some non-profits that have adopted wild horses & burros from the BLM, the process and regulations don’t differentiate non-profits from individual adopters.  By allowing non-profits to care for the excess wild horses and burros and adopt them out, the BLM can concentrate on managing the on-the-range population and not the off-range populations.

Equine non-profits are more competent then the BLM in running an adoption program. The BLM is a federal governmental agency charged with implementing and administering a plethora of federal statutes and regulations.  The adoption program is but one small program within the BLM’s WHBP.  Worse yet, the WHBP is but one of only several larger programs in the BLM.  Within the BLM, there are at least 35 programs comparable to the WHBP.  Here is just a short list of the different programs within the BLM: Abandoned Mine Lands, Alternative Dispute Resolution/Conflict Prevention Program, Asset Management, Communication Sites Management, Cultural, Paleontological Resources and Tribal Consultation, Cadastral Survey, Climate Change, US Mineral Surveyor Program, Fish, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, Forests and Woodlands, and so on.  Nearly all equine non-profits, particularly those with rescues and sanctuaries, adopting out animals is a vital and key part of their business model. These non-profits rescue injured, sick, and dying horse, rehabilitate them and adopt out.  Without a successful adoption program, equine non-profits would be unable to survive because they wouldn’t be able to help any horses, other than the very first they take in. 

Also, private parties will be more likely to adopt from a non-profit, seen to be saving these animals, then the BLM, who are seen to be causing the problem.   Therefore, the BLM should allow non-profits the ability to care for all the wild horses and burros removed from the range and the authority to adopt them out to private parties. Lastly, once a sustainable on-the-range population is achieved and maintained, the number of wild horses and burros off-the-range will decrease because there won’t be excess animals on public lands being removed.  Although wild horses & burros reproduce rapidly and the BLM will have a difficult time maintaining a sustainable population, some animal may still need to be removed from the range. When these removals happen, the BLM must establish humane methods for rounding up the excess animals and do it in the most fiscally responsible way. 

By removing the excess animals from the public lands, the BLM will achieve a sustainable population.  Although this is a very important step, the BLM’s biggest hurdle is not getting to a sustainable population, but maintain into the future.  The BLM has to develop a better on-the-range management plan; one that will effectively control the population at the new AML.

Currently, the BLM is using three methods of population control: roundups, fertility drugs, and a manipulation of sex ratios within herd.  These three methods, although they are not producing sustainable results, aren’t necessarily faulty methods of controlling the on-the-range population.  The reason these methods are currently failing is the inconsistent manner for which the BLM has used them.   The most effective method of controlling the wild horses and burro’s population isn’t roundups, but a consistent and aggressive use of fertility controls.  The BLM cites high costs of fertility drugs as a reason for only 750 wild horses receiving fertility treatment.  Although the cost may be high, the long term savings of controlling a sustainable population outweigh the current cost of fertility dosages.  In the interim, the BLM may need to increase spending on the WHBP, but with a new management plan in place, partnerships with non-profits, and increased use of fertility drugs, the cost incurred today will result in the savings of millions in the future.

under: Natural Resources

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