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December 15, 2019

BLM board endorses AVMA, AAEP policy on herd management

Bureau’s plans to spay mares still in limbo
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The National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board in October endorsed a new policy from the American Association of Equine Practitioners and the AVMA. The board recommends that the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service implement the strategies outlined to the extent possible. Read the meeting minutes (PDF).

Earlier this year, the AVMA and AAEP adopted the joint policy on management of wild horses and burros. The policy states that overpopulation has created welfare risks, including starvation and dehydration.

The BLM lists the number of wild horses and burros as 88,090 as of March. According to research from the bureau, the number of wild horses and burros that can live healthily and in balance with the ecology on public land is 27,000. Currently, an additional 50,000 horses are maintained off-range in long-term holding facilities.

Wild horses in a corral
Wild horses at the corral facility in Hines, Oregon. The AVMA and American Association of Equine Practitioners adopted a joint policy this year on overseeing Bureau of Land Management wild horses and burros. It states that overpopulation of these animals has created welfare risks, including starvation and dehydration.

The policy states that additional strategies are needed to reduce the population to desired levels.

The AVMA and AAEP suggest the following strategies:

  • Ongoing development and use of long-lasting contraceptives.
  • Use of permanent sterilization methods, such as spaying or castration in selected herds, as well as research into other methods of permanent sterilization.
  • Continued removal from areas that cannot support the population of animals.
  • Continued development of adoption and sale strategies for animals that are removed from the range.
  • Use of unrestricted sales as a management strategy for horses that are over 10 years old and have not been successfully adopted at least three times.

“The AAEP and AVMA believe that short-term and permanent sterilization methods combined with greater private sale and adoption options will best serve the BLM’s mission to protect the health and welfare of wild horses and burros,” the policy states.

Representatives from the AVMA and AAEP visited congressional offices this fall to advocate for the policy and discuss ways to improve and protect the welfare of wild horses and burros.

The BLM has come under fire in the past few years for its consideration of surgical sterilization to help with fertility control. In its 2018 report to Congress, the bureau included plans for ovariectomy via colpotomy, which is performed by making an incision in the vaginal wall and then using a device to remove the ovary, much like what is done when a testicle is removed during castration.

But a study that would investigate the procedure was put on hold after Colorado State University withdrew its partnership and support last fall amid public outcry.

Most recently, a letter from 78 veterinarians criticizing the BLM’s proposal to perform surgical sterilization on wild horses was sent to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt in October.

Joanna Grossman, PhD, equine program manager for the Animal Welfare Institute, told JAVMA News: “Ovariectomy via colpotomy is a highly controversial procedure in the veterinary community, given the potential for animal suffering. These medical professionals raised valid concerns about performing colpotomies absent a clinical need and pointed to the lack of independent veterinary oversight in the research design.”

An AVMA FAQ on the issue states that: “When performed by a veterinarian experienced in the procedure, ovariectomy via colpotomy may provide an efficient method for sterilizing horses in the wild. However, it must be noted that this procedure requires exceptional skill.”

Dr. Bruce Whittle, chair of the AAEP Welfare and Public Policy Advisory Council, said the AAEP and AVMA support vaccine-based fertility control when it is feasible and horses can be easily accessed. But there are areas where BLM staff can’t access the horses easily. In those cases, he says, it is safer to catch mares once and perform a sterilization method that is permanent rather than catching them several times.

He added that there are potential complications with every procedure, but the studies he’s seen on colpotomies show the complication rate in domestic mares is low. The AAEP and AVMA support more research to understand whether the procedure is feasible or not in these herds.

“It is going to take multiple tools to solve the problem, and if we try to limit potential solutions, they’re not going to be able to fix the problem,” Dr. Whittle said.