By Maddy Butcher
- Most of us sit passionately in one camp or the other.
- Hard-checked facts are scarce.
- There’s a lot at stake.
Since 1971, the Bureau of Land Management has tried and failed to protect and control the wild horse and burro population. On top of that, the agency’s murky, shifting policies have frustrated and dissatisfied stakeholders:
- Ranchers claim the BLM kowtows to bleeding-heart horse lovers.
- Wild horse advocates say the BLM is in the pocket of Big Beef.
Stuck in the middle, pleasing no one, and running up an incredible taxpayer tab, the BLM waved a white flag a few years ago. It commissioned the National Academy of Sciences to review its management plan.
The 630-page report is hot off the presses and BestHorsePractices is thrilled that science and evidence-based collaboration might finally influence policy and enlighten the public.
You can buy the report for 80 bucks or download an excellent prepublication pdf here.
Appropriate Management Levels (AMLs) at the root of the problem
The BLM develops AMLs in declared Herd Management Areas (HMAs). AMLs are the quota of horses and burros allowed in each area. If the BLM count exceeds the quota, they conduct a roundup.
But this practice is flawed on many levels, says the report:
“How AMLs are established, monitored, and adjusted is not transparent to stakeholders, supported by scientific information, or amenable to adaptation with new information, environmental and social change.
“Research suggests that transparency is an important contributor to the development of trust between agencies and stakeholders. The public should be able to understand the methods used and how they are implemented and should be able to access the data used to make decisions.”
In other words, AMLs are arbitrary and unnecessarily secretive.
Do roundups even work?
You don’t need a Ph.D. in ecology to see that removing a lot of horses from an area makes it easier for the remaining horses to survive and thrive. The report says roundups are actually compounding, not fixing the problem. They are part of why wild horse and burro populations are flourishing, doubling every four years.
(Yet mustang advocates contend that thinning herds will create genetically unhealthy herds. Still others say AMLs aren’t low enough and hurt the wildlife populations.)
According to the report, the BLM is spending a lot of money to exacerbate their very mission.
What about the cost?
Last year, it cost $43 million to keep about 50,000 horses off the range in short- and long-term holding pens. Less than one in two horses gets adopted. And with slaughter not an option, that makes the U.S. government (or Joe Taxpayer) the biggest horse owner in the world. [Read more about mustangs going to slaughter.]
The New York Times compared the sprawling stockade numbers to the people population of Cheyenne, Wyoming. That city’s annual budget is less than the BLM’s budget for dealing with horses and burros.
The report devotes scores of pages to options in fertility control, discussing chemical to surgical options for both stallions and mares.
It implores the BLM to address its many challenges, to reduce costs, and improve the welfare of not only the horses and burros but all animals on the range.
“Given the nature of the situation, a satisfactory resolution will take time, resources, and dedication to a combination of strategies underpinned by science.
“In the short term, intensive management of free-ranging horses and burros would be expensive, but addressing the problem immediately with a long-term view is probably a more affordable and satisfactory answer than continuing to remove animals to long-term holding facilities. Investing in science-based management approaches would not solve the problem instantly, but it could lead the Wild Horse and Burro Program to a more financially sustainable path that manages healthy horses and burros with greater public confidence.”
A note of Bureau sympathy
Keep in mind, the BLM must also consider other federal acts pertaining to public lands, including the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the Wilderness Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
A crowded dinner table, indeed, and everyone’s hungry and watching the cook.
Don’t take sides, just use science, they say.
If you’re thinking the folks behind this report are just a bunch of wonks from Washington D. C., think again. The committee includes scientists and veterinarians from Montana, California, Colorado, Utah, Missouri, Nevada, and Washington. It was, according to chairman and veterinarian Guy Hughes Palmer, an extraordinary effort of collaboration, commitment, and citizen science.
“Science alone, even the best science, cannot resolve the divergent viewpoints on how best to manage free-ranging horses and burros on public lands. Evidence-based science can, however, center debate about management options on the basis of confidence in the data, predictable outcomes of specific options, and understanding of both what is known and where uncertainty remains. I am confident that this study provides a centerpoint and hope that it will serve as a guide for the first step in the journey toward ensuring that genetically viable, physically and behaviorally healthy equid populations can be maintained while preserving a thriving, balanced ecosystem on public lands.”