AAEP releases report on BLM's wild horses

Report: "Adoption program has evolved into a welfare program"
Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

The Bureau of Land Management has enlisted veterinarians and scientists to help guide how to proceed with its Wild Horse and Burro Management Program.

The agency takes inventory of the animals on public ranges and can remove excess animals on overpopulated ranges and relocate them to holding facilities, where some might be sold or put up for adoption.

helicopter roundup
A helicopter drives wild horses into a trap in Oregon. (Courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management)

Horse activists have steadfastly opposed the government roundups as cruel and sometimes deadly. More recently, they have taken the agency to court for perceived abuses to the horses.

In August, a federal judge sided with the Wild Horse Freedom Federation by finding that a government helicopter came "dangerously or unreasonably close" to a horse during a Nevada roundup.

Another group, the Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, sued the BLM this summer for its plans to corral as many as possible of the 1,000 or so horses in western Wyoming's White Mountain and Little Colorado herd management areas, then gelding or spaying the 300 or so that would be returned to the range. The BLM eventually decided neither to spay nor geld but to use the PZP vaccine, a fertility control drug. The roundup began Aug. 21 and ended a week later.

"Appropriate" care

To obtain an objective analysis of its program, the BLM requested external reviews by the American Association of Equine Practitioners and the National Research Council (see following page).

The AAEP BLM Task Force completed its review at the end of August after sending a task force of 10 member veterinarians from private practice, universities, and industry to observe BLM gathers; most had no experience with the BLM program.

Teams of three to four members observed three gathers in southwest Wyoming, west-central Nevada, and northeast Nevada. The trips to observe the gathers also included visits to four short‐term holding facilities in Wyoming, Nevada, and Utah. Two long‐term holding pastures were visited in Oklahoma. All this was done during a six‐month period between October 2010 and March 2011.

The task force concluded that the BLM maintained "appropriate" care, handling, and management practices for its population of horses that generally support the safety, health status, and welfare of the animals.

"(BLM employees) have real strong feeling for these herds of horses and manage them as if they're their own. They take a lot of pride in their herd and caring for them," said Dr. John S. Mitchell, chair of the task force and AAEP president-elect.

Room for improvement

At the same time, the task force noted in its 35-page report a handful of areas that could use improvement.

The AAEP found fault with the BLM for having too many horses to manage, because more remain in captivity than run wild on the range. In 2011, the BLM managed about 33,014 horses and 5,483 burros on the range. Meanwhile, the number of horses reported in BLM short-term holding facilities was 10,607 and the number in long-term holding facilities was 29,341, for a total of 39,948. A related concern noted by the task force: Many wild horses now live out their lives at government?supported long?term holding facilities.

The task force also pointed out that, while a substantial number of wild horses have found homes through the BLM's innovative adoption and placement programs, statistics show a marked decline in the past five years. From 2006-2010, the number of horses adopted decreased by 55 percent, from 6,644 to 2,960.

A decade ago, the adoption program seemed viable, with a substantial number of horses being captured and adopted, Dr. Mitchell said. Current components include regional BLM-supported adoption events, Extreme Mustang Makeover training programs and competitions sponsored by the Mustang Heritage Foundation, and state prison projects.

The BLM spends a substantial amount of its budget on these programs. Between 2004 and 2010, spending on the program went from $36.7 million to $66.1 million.

Yet, the reality is today that adoptions have plummeted because of the inability of more potential horse owners to afford horse care and a competing glut of unwanted healthy, domestic horses available for adoption, according to the report.

Burros in holding pen
Burros are corralled into holding pens at a BLM facility in California. (Courtesy of Dr. John S. Mitchell/AAEP)

Meanwhile, the wild horse populations have no natural predators, and if allowed to proliferate on their own, could double in size every four to five years. "When weather extremes come, whether hot or cold, you're going to have higher numbers of suffering and death in herds if they overpopulate and don't have enough food and water," Dr. Mitchell said. "We thought having proper census control and the fact there needs to be population control over horses per range was an important part of managing horses."

Future strategy

A central issue for all discussions involving the care and management of the wild horse population is controlling their reproductive rate on the range, according to the report. The AAEP encourages the BLM to prioritize research into and application of effective fertility control methods to reduce the foaling rate in wild herds.

The BLM's existing method for managing herd number is to keep a smaller ratio of females. The bureau also works with the PZP injectable birth control vaccine.

Dr. Mitchell said research on reproductive control methods is an area where the AAEP can provide expertise. This could be through the agency consulting with association members who are equine reproduction specialists. Or, the association could develop methods to control the foaling rate in herds without having to capture horses so often, which reduces stress on horses, eliminates danger for employees, and saves the BLM money, he said.

The other criticisms from the task force had more to do with isolated incidents members observed that could have been handled better with more consistent rules and expectations. Examples would be a pilot who flew a little too close for comfort or a veterinarian who could have better adhered to basic anesthetic medical protocols.

"Any time a large organization like this deals with a lot of private contractors, it's important for there to be templates, protocols, standards of care so that it's being done consistently for the entire operation," Dr. Mitchell said.

The BLM said in a statement that it appreciates the thorough, objective report prepared by the AAEP and will review its recommendations. Much of the AAEP's findings mirror the BLM's "Proposed Strategy: Details of the BLM's Proposed Strategy for Future Management of America's Wild Horses and Burros," which it sent out last year for comment.

Under the proposed new strategy, the BLM would place greater emphasis on using fertility control, including "catch, treat, and release" gathers; boosting adoptions; and establishing a comprehensive animal welfare program. The agency will likely wait, however, to make any changes until the NRC committee completes its work in mid-2013.

In the meantime, the BLM just finished the process of seeking nominations for its Scientific Advisory Board on the Wild Horse and Burro Management Program.

The National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council has formed a committee to review the Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse and Burro Management Program, and it is ready to go to work.

The provisional, 14-member committee includes Dr. Guy H. Palmer, director of Washington State University's School for Global Animal Health and chair of the committee, and Dr. David S. Thain, an assistant professor and state extension veterinarian in the Department of Agriculture, Nutrition, and Veterinary Science at the University of Nevada-Reno.

The committee's first meeting was Oct. 27-28 in Reno.

The NRC is to conduct an independent, technical evaluation of the scientific, methodologic, and technical decision-making approaches of the program.

Members hope to address some of the following key scientific challenges and questions:

  • Given available information and methods, how accurately can herd populations in the West be estimated?
  • What are the best methods to estimate herd numbers, and what is the margin of error for those methods?
  • What are the strengths and limitations of the WinEquus population model currently used by the BLM for predicting impacts on wild horse populations?
  • What does information available on the herds' genetic diversity indicate about long-term herd health, from a biological and genetic perspective?
  • What are the best estimates of the annual rates of increase in herds, and what factors affect the accuracy of and uncertainty related to those estimates?
  • What scientific factors should be considered when making population control decisions, and how should effectiveness of control approaches, herd health, genetic diversity, social behavior, and animal well-being be taken into account?
  • What information related to the effectiveness of immunocontraception in preventing pregnancies and reducing herd populations is available?
  • When developing nonreproducing populations, which tools should be considered (e.g., castration, spaying, vasectomy, or use of chemical sterilants)?
  • Is there credible evidence to indicate that the presence of vasectomized stallions in a herd would be effective in decreasing annual population growth rates, or are there other methods the BLM should consider for managing stallions in a herd that would be effective in tangibly suppressing population growth?
  • What is the optimal approach to establishing or adjusting appropriate management levels?
  • What are some options available to the BLM to address the widely divergent and conflicting perspectives about wild horse and burro management and to consider stakeholder concerns while using the best available science to protect land and animal health?

A report is expected to be issued by mid-2013.