Navajo Nation & BLM look at grim options
CAMERON, ARIZONA––Why did 111 wild horses die stuck in the mud at a Navajo Nation stock pond near Cameron, Arizona, during the last week of April 2018?
Photos distributed by Navajo Nation spokesperson Mihio Manus “showed clusters of horses with dried mud on their bodies, some overlapping one another. The pond had a small ribbon of water in its center, surrounded by cracked earth,” reported Felicia Fonseca of Associated Press on May 3, 2018.
“The stock pond typically is a good spot for thirsty animals, being one of the last in the region to dry up,” Fonseca added. “But drought conditions left it without much water from runoff or rain this year, tribal officials said.”
Hunt wild horses?
The stock pond where the 111 horses became terminally mired is about 170 miles southwest of Teec Nos Pos, Arizona.
The Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources on February 28, 2018 rescinded a proclamation issued only days before that a six-day “feral horse management hunt” would be held to reduce by at least 60 the wild horse population in the Carrizo Mountains near Teec Nos Pos.
The Navajo Nation president Russell Begaye told media that the hunt would be postponed, not necessarily cancelled, and that the proclamation was rescinded “to allow for public input and education.”
“Trophy hunt area”
“Hunters accompanied by wildlife conservation officers would have been able to kill non-branded horses that were at least two years old,” wrote Farmington Daily Times reporter Hannah Grover. “Hunters would not have been permitted to kill mares who had foals with them.”
Navajo Nation Department of Fish & Wildlife director Gloria Tom told Grover that the Corrizo Mountains are a “trophy hunt area,” Grover wrote, and that her agency is “concerned about the impacts of the horses on the habitat, especially about the impact on mule deer.”
Said Tom, “We’re looking at a very severe outlook for lack of precipitation.”
Livestock vs. horses
Altogether, the Navajo Nation horse population is upward of 38,000, according to aerial surveys done in 2016. Most are wild or feral.
As many as 67,000 horses occupied the same habitat circa 1930, but many of those horses were kept for work, according to Survey of Free-Ranging Horses (Equus caballus) on the Navajo Nation: Final Report.
The Navajo Nation horse population was reduced to 27,000 by 1951, partly due to drought, partly due to reallocation of the available grazing land and water to support livestock, but rebounded to 57,000 by 2011. The decline of nearly 20,000 since then appears to be attributable chiefly to adverse habitat conditions.
Also between 1930 and 1951, the Navajo Nation sheep population was cut from 575,000 to 250,000, and as of 2011 was about 143,000. The goat population was cut from 187,000 to 49,000, rising to 55,000 by 2011. The number of cattle was cut from 37,500 to 10,000, but by 2011 had increased to 135,000.
Navajo still have more horses per acre than the BLM
Altogether, the Navajo Nation livestock population stress on the habitat, measured in “Animal Management Units,” is approximately the same now as in 1951.
Even after the loss of horses since 2011, however, the Navajo Nation has about 30% more horses per acre than does land under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, the Survey of Free-Ranging Horses found.
The numbers of horses on BLM land are meanwhile high enough to have perhaps produced a political, economic, and humanitarian crisis.
BLM reports to Congress
Even as the wild horse management issues on the Navajo Nation were barely noted by outside media, “Wild horse advocates are condemning a report the Bureau of Land Management quietly submitted to Congress that calls for massive removals of wild horses from public lands in Utah and nine other Western states,” observed Brian Maffly of the Salt Lake Tribune.
The report, entitled Management Options for a Sustainable Wild Horse & Burro Program, argues that “Since receiving federal protection in 1971, wild horse and burro populations on public lands have dramatically increased, far exceeding what is healthy for the land and the animals.
Wild horses DO have predators
“Wild horses and burros have no natural predators,” the report incorrectly claims, disregarding pumas, wolves, and grizzly bears, but “herds can double in size every four years,” even with predation, and, the report emphasizes, “As herd sizes increase, the forage and water resources from the land become depleted, resulting in starvation, dehydration, and death. In their search for food and water, the animals often move onto private land or along highways, resulting in safety issues and habitat destruction for horses and humans alike.
“Public land ranchers have cut back on grazing to accommodate increasing numbers of wild horses and burros,” Management Options states.
Indeed, the numbers of cattle and sheep now on the 26.9 million acres of BLM land are barely half the numbers present in 1971, when the Wild Free-Roaming Horses & Burros Act gave wild horses protected status.
Pronghorn, deer, elk, & bighorn sheep
“Overgrazing by wild horses and burros,” Management Options charges, “has reduced sagebrush and grass cover vital to greater sage grouse,” nominated but not accepted for listing as an endangered species, “and has resulted in lower survival rates in those areas. Overpopulated herds have displaced native species including pronghorn, deer, elk, and bighorn sheep.”
But wild horse advocates almost unanimously denounced Management Options for a Sustainable Wild Horse & Burro Program, mostly denying that any overpopulation issues exist.
“Groups derided the 24-page document as a ‘roadmap for destruction of America’s wild free-roaming horse and burros,’” Maffly of the Salt Lake Tribune learned, “because it calls for permanent sterilization, euthanasia and ‘sale without limitation,’ a euphemism for slaughter.
“The report lays out several options for reducing the number of horses roaming public lands to populations the BLM has determined to be the ‘appropriate management level,’” Maffly summarized, “pegged at between 17,000 and 27,000 — a number that horse groups say is not compatible with the long-term survival of wild equines.”
Objected Suzanne Roy, executive director of the California-based American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, “That’s the number that existed [on the range] in 1971 when Congress acted to protect [wild equines] because they were fast disappearing.
“The number the BLM deems appropriate,” Roy alleged, “is the extinction level.”
Reduced carrying capacity, but more horses
But whatever the longterm carrying capacity may be for wild horses in the 10 westernmost U.S. continental states, it is far less than whatever it might have been in 1971, while the numbers of horses have soared.
According to the BLM analysis, there are now about 83,000 wild horses on BLM-managed land, with more on tribal land, in National Forests, and on military reservations.
“By the summer of 2019,” the BLM projects, “there will likely be well over 100,000 wild horses on BLM-managed land, with up to 20,000 more the year after.”
Horse adoptions down by two-thirds
Acknowledges Management Options, “The 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, as amended, contains a variety of tools for managing herd numbers. However, current congressional appropriation riders prohibit the BLM from using all the authorities available in the Act. Specifically, Congress blocks the sale of wild horses and burros without limitation, and has limited the use of euthanasia. The BLM retains the ability to gather the animals from the range, but then must care for them until they are adopted or sold.”
The BLM managed to rehome more than 9,000 wild horses per year in the early 1990s, but adoptions fell, coinciding with crackdowns on the illegal sale of adopted horses to slaughter, and also with a steep decline in number of Americans who keep horses for recreational riding, coinciding with the aging of the Baby Boom generation.
Wild horse adoptions have fallen to 3,000 or fewer in the early 21st century, with no demographic hints that horse-keeping will ever regain the popularity it had several decades ago.
$48,000 per horse
“If the animals are not adopted or sold,” Management Options continues, “the BLM is required to care for them for the remainder of their lives. The cost of holding and caring for these animals off-range has increased substantially in recent years,” both because more horses have been gathered and held and because years of drought have kept hay prices high.
“In Fiscal Year 2017,” Management Options recounts, “the BLM spent nearly 60% of its $81 million budget on the care of animals removed from the range. That’s nearly $48,000” per horse over the horse’s lifetime, amounting to more than $1 billion just to look after the horses now in custody.
The BLM believes it has the ability to round up as many as 20,000 wild horses per year, but lacks the capacity to hold many more in corrals.
Return to the range not an option
Allowing the horses to return to the range, meanwhile, is not an option either ecologically or politically.
Even if the ranchers, Native American tribes, Forest Service, and others who also have legal claims on use of the habitat agreed to sharing the range with more than twice as many horses as now, which is improbable, the wild horses left on the range after every roundup have rapidly bred back toward the carrying capacity of the available land and water.
Effects of global warming including less precipitation and more wildfires have meanwhile diminished the carrying capacity of what once might have been wild horse habitat for all grazing species.
“Most inhumane & costly is to take no action”
Management Options asks Congress to again allow horses to be sold for slaughter, to lower the age at which a horse may be sold “without reservation” from 10 years to just five, to allow individuals to acquire more than the present limit of four wild horses apiece, and to subsidize adoptions by paying people $1,000 each to take a horse––a notion which if not very carefully supervised could amount to subsidizing “adopting” horses for resale to slaughter.
“Damaging environmental effects may soon become irreversible and large die-offs of wild horses/burros and multiple species of plants and other animals could begin,” Management Options ominously adds, concluding that, “The most inhumane and costly solution is to continue to take no decisive action.”
“Falsely called ‘starving’ & ‘overpopulated'”
Objected filmmaker and Cloud Foundation founder Ginger Kathrens, who holds the “humane advocate” seat on the BLM wild horse advisory board, “These federally protected animals are being blamed for rangeland health problems caused by welfare ranching on public lands, and are falsely called ‘starving’ and ‘overpopulated’ as an alarmist tactic to remove them from their home ranges.”
Blaming cattle ranchers and hunters, in turn, has for decades been the standard wild horse advocacy response to any proposal to reduce or even stabilize wild horse numbers.
Ethan Lane, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s executive director for federal lands, fueled wild horse advocacy suspicions by telling Scott Sonner of Associated Press that his organization strongly favors selling the wild horses now in custody to slaughter, along with others still on the range.
What about the bones in the stockpond?
But the bones in the Cameron, Arizona stockpond testify that regardless of whoever is ultimately responsible for drought and degraded habitat, horses are suffering.
Similar episodes in times of drought have brought similar responses from all sides, for instance the deaths of as many as 4,000 horses in 1990-1991 after new security fencing around remote parts of Nellis Air Force Base cut off their access to water. Simply put, the accessible habitat could no longer sustain a horse herd that had exceeded 6,400.
Even after the deaths, wild horse advocates argued against the removal of 2,300 horses, undertaken by the BLM to reduce the Nellis Range population to what the reduced carrying capacity of the habitat could support.
Friends of Animals blocks contraception
Currently, “The option most in line with horse advocates’ position calls for continued use of the fertility vaccine PZP,” wrote Maffly. “While the report said the vaccines are a key tool, they also have serious limitations.
Says Management Options, “In order to maintain zero growth in the existing population it would be necessary to capture most wild horses every year for the administration of fertility control to target mares. This is not operationally feasible.”
Responded Kathrens, “A dose of PZP costs just $27 and versions of the fertility vaccine are now effective for multiple years.”
A more serious obstacle to using PZP to stabilize the wild horse population is that litigation and threats of litigation from Friends of Animals have repeatedly stopped PZP programs.
(See Suspension of PZP test means more people could eat a horse.)
“Another option,” Maffly noted, “calls for sterilizing 18,000 horses a year until lower management levels are reached, then spay and geld as needed to maintain those numbers. That tactic is unacceptable to most horse advocacy groups.”
Said Kathrens, “Surgical sterilization will destroy their wild and free-romping nature, which is protected under the law. You will have a bunch of pasture horses,” as if this was not what the 46,000 wild horses now in BLM corrals have become already.
Other wild horse advocates who favor use of PZP include Anthony Marr of Heal Our Planet Earth (HOPE) and Neda DeMayo of Return To Freedom.
Immunocontraceptives instead of helicopters?
Marr told ANIMALS 24-7 that he would like to see a flexible approach to determining carrying capacity, which changes from year to year with climatic conditions; use of immunocontraception to reduce the wild horse population to the range of fluctuation of the approximate carrying capacity; and then maintenance of the herd “with zero round-up and slaughter.”
“The immunocontraception program should be an integral part of BLM’s management plan, funded by BLM,” Marr said, suggesting that the budget could come out of the money saved from using immunocontraception instead of “hiring helicopters for round ups, and the expenses of holding facilities and adoption programs.”
One catch to that strategy, though, is that the need to intensively deploy immunocontraceptives to stabilize the wild horse population is now, while savings from gradually reducing the numbers of horses in holding facilities would be realized only over time.
“I would prefer to stress the wild horses as little as possible,” Marr added, “so accessing the wild horses on horseback, rather than using vehicles, much less helicopters, is the way to go.”
Killing horses “not a politically viable option”
Recalled DeMayo in a March 27, 2018 statement released shortly before Management Options was published, “In an unusually strong explanatory statement accompanying the omnibus spending bill passed [in mid-March], the House and Senate Interior Subcommittees demanded that the Department of the Interior produce a detailed plan for wild horses and burro management within 30 days.
“For 20 years,” DeMayo said, “Return To Freedom has called for BLM and Congress to aggressively pursue a humane long-term plan to manage wild horses on the range. Tools to do so have long been available, including the judicious use of fertility control. Unfortunately, BLM has failed to invest in this safe, proven tool. BLM has never spent more than 3.94% of its Wild Horse and Burro Program budget on fertility control, despite the recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences and studies showing that fertility control would save taxpayer money in the long run.”
“Neither ‘euthanizing’ – shooting – wild horses and burros, nor removing restrictions that reduce the number wild horses and burros bought by kill buyers, is a politically viable option,” Stram concluded. “Poll after poll shows Americans oppose horse slaughter and wish to see wild horses protected.”
Elizabeth Fuller says
I am utterly shocked that such a wealthy country cannot be humane with their animal population!!!!
Jamaka Petzak says
Anyone, of any species, who is no longer deemed “useful” has a risky future in a society that only values “usefulness”. Horses, clearly, have not been “useful” to this society since Ford’s time. But the answer to the “problem” of what to do with the horses seems very clear. Now, it just needs to be implemented. Where are the truly humane policymakers ?
Anthony Marr says
Thank you, Merritt and Beth, for once again meeting your own high self-set standard. If I may I’d like to add a couple of points of clarification. Obviously there will be a TRANSITION PERIOD of several years from the time when the IMMUNO-CONTRACEPTION (IC) program begins to the time when the population has been lowered to the OPTIMAL SUSTAINABLE POPULATION (OSP – to be co-determined by BLM biologists and independent biologists from the public). During this transition period, the horse population, though being reduced by IC, will still exceed the OSP. To protect the environment, there are two ways to solve this transitional problem: to round-up and remove the surplus, or to, SUPPLEMENT-FEED-AND-WATER the total population, until the OSP has been reached. Again I wager that to supplement feed and water the horses will be much less expensive that to round up the surplus by helicopter, put them into holding facilities, try to adopt out as many as possible, and auction off the unadopted to slaughter. Besides, the public will simply not stand for it. Groups opposed to the IC program due to some irrational and unscientific ideology of their own, are dooming thousands of wild horses to captivity and death.
Willis Lamm says
Effective and humane management of range horses and burros needs to be proactive rather than reactive, taking into account anticipated climate and weather trends. Horse herds in particular should be maintained in balance with available resources, for the humane sustainability of those herds and to prevent adverse impacts on other animal species that also depend on these resources.
Population control is an obvious approach. Removing horses determined to be excess is a common practice, but can be costly. Most management schemes seem to fall in the realm of waiting until there are far too many animals, then removing a great many more animals than could be absorbed by even a robust adoption market. As a result, animals have to be warehoused or disposed of.
A more practical approach involves fertility control. Just as we don’t want dogs and cats breeding out of control, some mitigation with respect to range horse reproduction needs to be employed. PZP is one approach that has been found to be successful in herds where it has been sensibly applied over a number of years. It is not a quick fix, as it typically takes about five years to fully realize the overall efficacy of a program.
Fertility control brings with it some degree of hysteria from portions of the advocacy camp who do not understand, or fail to recognize, the actual science involved. Also there is the more reasonable argument that wild free-roaming animals should be minimally managed. However, the counter argument is that at some point the populations are always going to reach practical limits. Whether the numbers are impacted by predators, die-offs, removals or culling, those populations will be adjusted. So the question then becomes, what is the most humane approach?
Fertility control is not 100% perfect, but it does have a mitigating impact on herd growth rates and it minimizes the genetic disruption of herds. Instead of members of the breeding population being permanently removed, the mares in that population simply produce fewer foals over their lifetimes.
Effective range and population management should also include effective resource development and protection. Adjusting populations without effectively managing resources often provides only a partial solution.
Numerous studies have reported the value of grazing animals in reducing wildfire potential, as they typically consume more volatile flash fuels. The cost of rotating herds into areas that could benefit from grazing could be but a fraction of wildfire suppression costs. While cattle grazing is used for this purpose, horses can often handle conditions that may be problematic for cattle. Some agencies that manage sensitive watersheds actually arrange for equine grazing as part of their fuels management programs.
The Western landscape is diverse where no one size fits all. But by taking a broader, more proactive and balanced approach to range and herd management, conditions can be improved for the ranges and animals, often at reduced costs.