What the Trump administration plans & what wild horse advocates hope to do about it
WASHINGTON D.C.––The infamous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, riding a white horse, red horse, black horse, and pale horse to sow Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death, are prophesied to come galloping at wild horses in the guise of Oil, Gas, Mining, and Grazing in mid-summer 2019.
That is when the U.S. federal Bureau of Land Management is expected to release a long awaited new management plan for the 70,000 formerly wild horses and burros now stashed in holding pens, after having been removed from the range, plus the estimated 82,000 wild equines still on BLM grazing land in 10 western states.
Trump asks Congress for “full suite of tools”
“President Donald Trump is again asking Congress to remove restrictions forbidding the Bureau of Land Management from using “the full suite of tools” to manage growing wild horse and burro herds,” summarized Greenwire reporter Scott Streater on April 2, 2019.
“That presumably includes the use of euthanasia in specific instances when horses are too old or sick or cannot be adopted or sold,” Streater wrote, “according to BLM’s recently released budget justification document detailing BLM’s $1.2 billion fiscal 2020 budget request.”
But further to that, Streater explained, the BLM budget justification asks “that appropriations language restricting BLM from using all of the management options authorized in the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 be eliminated.”
This would allow the BLM to sell directly to slaughter the wild horses and burros who have been removed from the range and are now deemed surplus.
Congress has balked, but now?
Language prohibiting the transfer of wild horses to slaughter brokers has been added by Congress to BLM budget authorization bills almost every year since 2003, when a stealth rider by the late Montana U.S. Senator Conrad Burns (1935-2016), a Republican, allowed the BLM to sell “surplus” wild equines “without limitation.”
“President Trump has included similar requests in the last two fiscal budget cycles,” recalled Streater, but “Congress, even with Republicans controlling the House and Senate the first two years of the Trump administration, has ignored the requests. Indeed, the Interior/EPA fiscal 2019 funding package approved in February includes language forbidding ‘the destruction of healthy, unadopted, wild horses and burros in the care of the Bureau [of Land Management] or its contractors.”
Twice as many horses & burros as ideal
The Bureau of Land Management believes there are now 55,000 more wild horses and burros on the 27 million acres of BLM grazing land than the appropriate management level, set at about 27,000 since 1971.
The appropriate management level is based on the estimated carrying capacity of BLM range for horses and livestock.
While the numbers of cattle and sheep on BLM land have dropped to less than half of what they were in 1971, cattle and sheep still outnumber wild equines by a ratio of about two dozen to one, albeit that the cattle and sheep are usually pastured for only about half of each year, whereas horses and burros are on the range year round.
Currently just over 61% of the total BLM Wild Horse & Burro Program management budget goes toward the care and feeding of horses and burros who have been removed from the range.
Trump wants to cut BLM funding
“The budget justification notes that Trump wants to cut BLM’s Wild Horse & Burro Program funding to $75.7 million, from $80.5 million in 2019,” Streater reported.
The BLM, however, wants to spend $40,000 more in 2020 than in 2019 to promote wild horse adoptions.
“That includes a new adoption incentive,” Streater mentioned. “The bureau is offering $1,000 to anyone who will adopt one of the thousands of wild horses and burros rounded up from federal rangelands.”
The BLM is also continuing research to develop “sterilization methods, the use of contraceptives, and spaying or gelding [horses and burros] before returning them to the range,” Streater finished.
HSUS & friends
Not waiting to meet Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death on the floors of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, Humane Society of the U.S. president Kitty Block and Sara Amundson, president of the subsidiary Humane Society Legislative Fund on April 22, 2019 released their own wild equine management plan.
“Since inception of the program, the BLM has removed approximately 270,000 wild horses and burros from our public lands, without any significant use of fertility control tools, and without a plan to ensure the long-term viability and humane treatment of wild horses and burros,” Block and Amundson charged.
“Three years ago,” Block and Amundson said, “HSUS and HSLF started to work cooperatively with other stakeholders on a simple goal – find a responsible way forward.”
Among the “other stakeholders” were the American SPCA, the wild horse advocacy organization Return to Freedom, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the Public Lands Council, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the Society for Range Management.
The participating organizations agreed upon a four-point plan including “Comprehensive large-scale application of fertility control strategies to help stabilize wild horse and burro populations; targeted gathers of horses and burros in densely populated areas that cannot sustain large numbers; relocating horses and burros in holding facilities to large pasture facilities that provide a free-roaming environment; and promoting the adoption of wild horses and burros into good homes.”
Said Block and Amundson in a joint statement, “Although this proposal requires some interventions for horses that the humane community has fought in the past,” specifically the use of fertility control, “the comprehensive plan, as a whole, is the best path forward to protect America’s horses from an ineffective status quo.”
Agreed American Farm Bureau Federation director of Congressional relations Ryan Yates, “Each of the stakeholders involved in this proposal had to set aside some long-held positions in order to reach this agreement. While it was difficult for us to cede some tools authorized by the Wild Free Roaming Horse & Burro Act, including sale-without-restriction, we are hopeful that this good-faith effort will soon be rewarded with healthy populations range-wide.”
“Threw in the towel”
Friends of Animals president Priscilla Feral, long the most vehement opponent of contracepting wild horses, predictably rejected the HSUS-brokered proposal, formally titled The Path Forward for Management of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Wild Horses and Burros.
“The ASPCA and HSUS have thrown in the towel when it comes to protecting America’s wild horses by capitulating to the Bureau of Land Management and its wild horse extinction plan,” Feral charged.
Instead, Feral argued that Congress should “Limit or restrict entirely cattle and sheep from grazing in wild horse Herd Management Areas; limit oil, gas and mining operations in Herd Management Areas; amend the Wild Horse & Burro Act to allow wild horses to be returned or relocated to Herd Areas in states where wild horses have been wiped out; protect natural predators such as mountain lions; and adjust outdated appropriate management levels to accommodate more horses.”
Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death may find more support
Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death all may have stronger constituencies in the pro-oil, gas, and mining Trump administration and the U.S. Senate than any aspect of the FoA proposal is likely to find, even in the unlikely event that it might be favored in the House of Representatives.
Among the 100 U.S. Senators are 20 representing wild horse range states and long aligned with ranchers, meaning that any proposal opposed by ranchers would need nearly two-thirds support from the rest of the Senate to pass.
Feral also failed to name any “states where wild horses have been wiped out.” None of the 10 western states included in BLM-managed wild horse range have fewer wild horses now than ten years ago, let alone 1971.
“A deal with Chris Stewart”
But the American Wild Horse Campaign on April 23, 2019 also rejected the plan offered by Block and Amundson, terming it “a deal with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, rancher lobbyists, and Representative Chris Stewart.”
Stewart is a Utah Republican, first elected in 2013, whom the American Wild Horse Campaign called “the leading advocate in Congress for the mass removal and destruction of wild horses.”
This is apparently because Stewart in July 2014 introduced legislation, which did not advance, to dismantle the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 and instead allow states and Native American tribes to manage wild horses and burros on all federal land, not just state and tribal land.
State & tribal management
“States and tribes already successfully manage large quantities of wildlife within their borders,” Stewart said at the time. “If horses and burros were under that same jurisdiction, I’m confident that new ideas and opportunities would be developed to manage the herds more successfully than the federal government.”
Stewart failed to mention that state-level wildlife management consists mostly of selling hunting and fishing permits, while many tribal governments have historically managed wild horses by selling them to slaughter as a cash crop.
The Yakima Nation, of south-central Washington, for instance, has often sold wild horses to slaughter at least since 1953, when the Walla Walla Union Bulletin reported that the tribe had hired a helicopter to help round up 7,000 horses from the Horse Heaven Hills near Kennewick.
This was among the first recorded uses of helicopters in horse capture.
The Path Forward for Management of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Wild Horses and Burros, the American Wild Horse Campaign said, “would require the removal of an unprecedented 15,000-20,000 wild horses from public lands in fiscal year 2020 alone. Large-scale removals, involving cruel and inhumane helicopter roundups, are envisioned for several additional years to get within 20% of the BLM’s population limit of 27,000 horses on 27 million acres.”
The American Wild Horse Campaign calls this an “extinction limit,” even though the present wild horse population has grown from fewer.
“The BLM will have control over these horses,” the American Wild Horse Campaign statement further objected, “and any improved holding facilities, like ‘enclosed pastures,’ will be funded by the BLM and at the mercy of annual appropriations.
“PZP is not mandated”
“The only scientifically proven method of humane population management, PZP fertility control, is not mandated,” the American Wild Horse Campaign statement continued.
“The BLM has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness to use PZP,” the American Wild Horse Campaign contended, though in reality BLM attempts to use PZP have been obstructed chiefly by lawsuits filed by Friends of Animals.
“Instead,” the American Wild Horse Campaign continued, “the BLM has repeatedly demonstrated its preference for more draconian measures, including surgical sterilization and managing wild horses in non-reproducing and single-sex herds.”
Trying to keep wild horses in single-sex herds was for decades the only non-lethal approach to birth control that was available to the BLM. Surgical sterilization is an alternative receiving serious BLM attention only since attempts to use PZP have been thwarted by Friends of Animals opposition.
“Unscientific population limits”
The American Wild Horse Campaign also objects to what it called “the BLM’s unscientific population limits for wild horses and burros, for which the National Academy of Sciences found there was no scientific support, and which are based on restricting these animals to just 12% of BLM lands and then allocating 80% of the forage in the remaining habitat to privately owned livestock.”
Omitted from the American Wild Horse Campaign statement, as from, the Friends of Animals statement, is any recognition that whatever the carrying capacity of the western range for wild horses and livestock might have been, before recent drought years, global warming has already ensured that the carrying capacity now––and for decades to come––will be substantially less.
Also omitted is acknowledgement that the livestock population on BLM land has already been steeply and repeatedly reduced, while the wild horse population has continued to grow.
The American Wild Horse Campaign did note that “Removing 15,000-20,000 horses from the range and storing them in holding for just one year could add as much as $50 million to the BLM’s $80 million a year budget,” which would in turn “make efforts to slaughter these horses in the future more likely.”
“Subsidy for slaughter”
Wild Horse Education founder Laura Leigh was already sounding alarms about an impending wild horse apocalypse, weeks before Scott Streater of Greenwire made the details of the BLM budget justification statement public.
Leigh on March 12, 2019, for instance, identified the proposed adoption incentive of $1,000 as potentially a subsidy for brokers in horses for slaughter.
“We expect BLM to present a cost comparison document, not a range report, to send to Congress,” Leigh added on April 5, 2019. “This will be used to determine how many they can capture, sterilize, release or send to holding. The report to Congress will create the baseline for the real debate for funding in fiscal year 2020. That report, and the real debate, will arrive at the end of summer.
“We expect there to be no increase in funding for monitoring, range improvements, barbed wire removal, etc.,” Leigh predicted. “There will be an extremely minor increase in the use of temporary fertility control. There will be massive removals. We expect 15-20,000 on the 2020 gather schedule. There will be gelding and spaying.”
Many of Leigh’s predictions were affirmed by BLM deputy director Brian Steed in Congressional testimony given on April 8, 2019.
Leigh dismissed The Path Forward for Management of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Wild Horses and Burros as “a repackaging of the 2009 ‘Salazar plan’ created by the former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, rebranding a 2009 Bureau of Land Management document.
“This does not address any issue on range,” Leigh fumed. “It addresses nothing about the faulty data, Appropriate Management Levels, protecting habitat, fixing boundary lines. This plan sells your wild horses down river.
“The entire system of public lands grazing is flawed,” Leigh argued. “Critical habitat is being lost to hard rock mining and oil and gas without the BLM even making a pretense of trying to identify what is critical to the [wild horse] herd and protecting it. Any ‘plan’ that fails to address these first and foremost is fundamentally flawed and, frankly, spineless.”
Even if all of that is true, though, reality is that revising public lands policy to favor wild horses over oil, gas, mining, and grazing would require political transitions on the scale of Armageddon.
“In 2013,” recalled Anthony Marr of Freedom Horse, “the universally respected National Academy of Sciences (NAS) published a 13-point paper, which cost $1.2 million dollars to produce, assessing the ways and means by which the Bureau of Land Management managed wild horses and burros.”
Key findings included that “BLM’s population monitoring procedure, upon which management strategies are based, are not sufficiently ‘rigorous’ to be deemed dependable, resulting probably in ‘underestimating the actual number of animals on the range.’”
The National Academy of Sciences agreed with the BLM, Marr summarized, that “the majority of free-ranging horse populations are growing at up to 15 to 20% a year, or doubling every four years.”
“Facilitating high rates of population growth”
But the BLM also found that management practices are “facilitating high rates of population growth,” Marr continued, because BLM’s ‘removals hold populations below levels affected by food limits.’ In other words, BLM is over-removing horses from the range.”
The National Academy of Sciences alleged that “Predators will not typically control population growth rates of horses,” claiming to be unable to “find any examples of wolf predation on free-ranging horses,” but since pumas, wolves, and grizzly bears are mostly excluded from grazing land shared with livestock, predators in the U.S. have not yet had the opportunity to respond to wild horse population growth.
Pumas, wolves, and grizzly bears are all known to prey on wild horses in coastal British Columbia and the Canadian Rocky Mountains, where the wild horse herds are not protected by law, have been lightly managed if at all, and yet have not become a political issue.
This may change in parts of Alberta where predators are few, wild horse populations are growing, and sporadic government-directed wild horse roundups began in 2015.
“More or less evasion”
The National Academy of Sciences further found that “The most promising fertility control methods for free-ranging horses or burros are porcine zona pellucida (PZP) vaccines and GonaCon vaccine for females and chemical vasectomy for males,” Marr reminded.
“The BLM’s reaction to this report has been more or less evasion,” Marr charged.
Marr then appraised the BLM numbers.
“The 2014 horse/burro population was ~35,000,” Marr wrote. “Four years later, in 2018, the population was reported as 82,000. By the doubling-every-4-years formula, the 2018 population should have been 70,000. The actual 82,000 more or less confirms the National Academy of Sciences formula of doubling every four years in the absence of predator effect. And since the population does increase, we need birth control.
“At 82,000,” Marr assessed, “the wild horse population on BLM land is 53,400 over the 26,600 Appropriate Management Level” set originally in 1971.
“The crucial question is: Where to put all these over-AML horses? Where else but the slaughterhouse? Pegasus forbids!”
Bureau of Land Management holding facilities and subcontractors were able to accommodate the many equines removed from the range until 2018, Marr pointed out, but now have no more vacancies.
“Thus all newly rounded-up horses have nowhere to go but the slaughterhouse,” Marr suggested, an option he does not favor, “except about 7% that are adopted.”
Marr believes the wild horse population on BLM land can be returned to the ecologically appropriate management level of now, not that of 1971, if the BLM and National Academy of Sciences work together “to scientifically determine the correct AML for [horse + cattle].”
Increasing carrying capacity
Marr further projects that reducing the livestock population on BLM grazing land by only 10% could allow as many as 175,000 horses to live on the shared range without further roundups and removals. However, instead of allowing the horses now on the range to breed up to that carrying capacity, Marr argues that sterilizing the horses now in holding facilities and returning them to their capture sites will occupy the carrying capacity in a manner that inhibits population growth.
This would in the long run reduce the wild horse population in essentially the same manner that releasing sterilized mosquitoes or fruit flies helps to reduce problematic insect populations, and in a manner similar to how neuter/return works to control populations of feral cats and street dogs.
“Of course birth control will have to be administered among the entire horse population, now fully on the range,” Marr explains, to maintain the sterilization ratio needed to keep the horse herds from growing.
“Contracept & release the captive horses”
“But considering field-darting to be labor intensive, time-consuming, expensive and not 100% effective,” Marr says, “plus the fact that a first shot requires a booster shot after 30 days, which entails relocating the horse for the booster, it would make sense to contracept the captive horses instead.
This could be done “by injection, followed by the booster shot 30 days hence, all in the confines and convenience of the holding facilities, before releasing the horses back to the range,” Marr suggests.
“Close most if not all of the holding facilities,” Marr continues, “while keeping the adoption program intact, thereby releasing 90% of BLM’s annual budget of $80.6 million back to management on the range. We are talking about at least $60 million freed up. Removing 150,000 head of cattle from the range would cost the BLM about $2.5 million, which now looks downright insignificant in the equation.
“The land will return to the horse”
“The removal of 150,000 head of cattle will reduce the cattle food requirement by 10%,” Marr calculates, “which can be transferred to the horses with or without supplemental feeding. If supplementary feeding is required,” to avoid over-grazing, “it could come from the feed the captive horses would have received in the holding facilities.”
Marr further points out that his modeling of how the wild horse and livestock populations can be managed to achieve particular balances can be adjusted, to allow for keeping more livestock on the range, if the time frame for achieving the Appropriate Management Level of combined equine and livestock numbers is extended.
“In the very long run,” Marr concuded, “when veganism impacts beef consumption in a big way, the land will gradually return to the horse.”