Government unveils new strategy for managing mustang populations

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Fewer wild horses will be removed from public lands over the next two years while the number of mares receiving anti-fertility treatment will increase substantially as part of a new strategy the Bureau of Land Management introduced in February.

While reaffirming an ongoing National Academy of Sciences review of the BLM program for managing wild horses and burros, the strategic plan also calls for increased adoptions and improved animal care and handling procedures. The BLM announced it will continue to oppose the killing or slaughter of wild horses or burros as a management practice.

"We've taken a top-to-bottom look at the wild horse and burro program and have come to a straightforward conclusion: We need to move ahead with reforms that build on what is working and move away from what is not," BLM Director Bob Abbey said.

"It will take time to implement these reforms, but as a first step, we are aiming to increase adoptions and broaden the use of fertility control. And while we do this, we are reducing removals while NAS helps us ensure that our management is guided by the best available science."

Approximately 38,400 mustangs and burros—about 33,700 horses and 4,700 burros—are estimated to be roaming on BLM-managed rangelands in 10 Western states. Wild horses and burros have virtually no natural predators, so herd sizes can double about every four years, requiring the agency to remove thousands of animals from the range each year to control the population.

The new management plan took into account more than 9,000 comments on the Wild Horse and Burro Program Strategy Development Document made public last June.

Virginia Congressman Jim Moran, ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Interior and Environment, and Related Agencies, has been critical of the agency's mustang management, but he welcomed the reforms. "The modifications of the National Wild Horse and Burro Program announced by BLM represent first steps in a long-overdue overhaul of this program," Moran said. "With more than 40,000 horses in long-term holding facilities at a cost of $37 million a year and growing, we cannot afford to wait any longer to make fundamental changes."

wild horse and burroThe BLM is moving forward with its strategy while awaiting the findings of the NAS review. The report is expected to be completed in 2013 and will address such topics as annual rates of population growth, fertility control methods, and genetic diversity in mustang herds.

For at least the next two years, the BLM intends to reduce the number of mustangs removed annually from 10,000 to 7,600—a level the agency says would essentially maintain the current number of wild horses and burros on the range. While drought or other emergencies may require the removal of more than 7,600 animals, Abbey said the BLM is taking a more conservative approach pending input from the NAS regarding how many horses can safely and humanely remain on the open range.

Additionally, the number of mares treated with fertility control has been increased from 500 in 2009 to approximately 2,000 in each of the next two years, pending sufficient budget allocations. The ultimate goal, Abbey says, is to make contraception the primary means of maintaining healthy population levels. The BLM will to work with the Humane Society of the United States to implement and monitor this expanded effort, he added.

The agency is issuing new procedures by which the public can apply to partner with the federal government for long-term care of wild horses removed from the public rangelands. Efforts will also be made to recruit volunteers to assist with monitoring rangelands and to encourage herd-related ecotourism.

Abbey said the BLM will continue to strengthen areas on which the agency has already started, including enhanced humane animal care and handling practices used during roundups and at short- and long-term holding facilities.

The strategy is posted on the Bureau of Land Management website at