“I’m not going to speculate on what Congress is going to do about money,” Pendley adds.
FORT COLLINS, Colorado; CALGARY, Alberta––Returning the U.S. wild horse population to the officially estimated sustainable level of about 27,000, without mass roundups for slaughter, will take 15 years and $5 billion of investment, acting Bureau of Land Management director William Perry Pendley told Scott Sonner of Associated Press on October 23, 2019.
Whether Congress will have the patience and be willing to allocate the money, Pendley could not say.
“I’m not going to speculate on what Congress is going to do about money,” Pendley told Sonner.
Pendley expanded upon his remarks of October 12, 2019, when, concluding a plenary address to nearly 700 members of the Society of Environmental Journalists in Fort Collins, Colorado, he said, “I’ll get really in the weeds. I think the biggest issue I see [for the Bureau of Land Management] is the wild horse and burro issue. We have 88,000 wild horses and burros on our western federal lands. They are causing havoc on the lands.”
Briefly addressing wild horses and burros just before escaping the room, Pendley convinced many of the journalists present that he had learned little about priorities in the barely 10 weeks since his July 30, 2019 appointment––and those were among the journalists most charitable toward him.
To the remainder, Pendley appeared to be chiefly evasive, avoiding discussion of global warming, oil and gas leasing, mining, water rights, and severely weakened enforcement of the Endangered Species Act under the Donald Trump presidential administration, among a long list of other urgent topics.
“The silliness of [Pendley’s] statement becomes obvious when one considers that wild horses don’t exist on more than 85% of BLM lands,” commented Western Watersheds Project director Erik Molvar for the political news web site The Hill, “and where they do occur, they have to share the range with domestic livestock, which typically have an even bigger impact on the land.”
But the Wild Free-Ranging Horse & Burro Act of 1971 allocates responsibility for maintaining and managing wild equines to the Bureau of Land Management.
Galloping toward a crunch
How that mission should be fulfilled is galloping full tilt toward a political crunch.
The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee on September 26, 2019 approved a $35 million appropriation in support of a wild horse sterilization program “supported by an unprecedented alliance including the Humane Society of the United States, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and American Farm Bureau Federation,” summarized Scott Sonner of Associated Press.
“They say it would eliminate the threat of slaughter for thousands of free-roaming horses and shrink the size of herds primarily through expanded fertility controls on the range,” Sonner wrote.
“Jubilation from ranchers who won HSUS cover”
But Animal Wellness Action executive director Monty Irby predicted to Sonner that the program would lead to “massive round-ups, a swelling captive wild horse population, and jubilation from cattlemen’s associations that secured political cover from the Humane Society of the U.S.,” which formerly employed both Irby and Animal Wellness Action lobbyist Wayne Pacelle, “for their long-time aspiration to secure a government-funded wild horse depopulation program.”
Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, called the Senate appropriations committee-approved program, “a sweeping betrayal of America’s wild horse herds by the nation’s largest animal welfare groups.”
“Path to extinction?!”
Cloud Foundation founder Ginger Kathrens, Wild Horse Conspiracy author Craig Downer, and Friends of Animals president Priscilla Feral joined in the denunciations, alleging that reducing the wild horse population to the 27,000 or fewer that the Bureau of Land Management argues should be the maximum carrying capacity for the 10 western range states would be, in Kathrens’ words, a “path to extinction.”
The absurdity of that position is illustrated by other statistics covering the same ten western states and wild horse range in western Canada, even if one contends, as the opponents of population reduction do, that wild horses are significantly genetically different from the other 9.2 million horses in the U.S. , most of whom who also share Spanish ancestry.
Canadian wild horses
Wild horses in Canada have no protected status. Officially, wild horses in Canada, though mixing and mingling occasionally with U.S. wild horses, are a feral population descended from stray and abandoned settlers’ horses. Either ranchers or public land managers may round up Canadian wild horses at will for sale to slaughter, just as was done in the U.S. before the passage of the Wild Free-Ranging Horse & Burro Act of 1971.
About 1,700 wild horses roam public lands on the Alberta side of the Canadian Rockies, with as few as 37 remaining in a single isolated forest herd in southwestern Saskatchewan, according to recent government counts. About 200 of the Alberta wild horses were culled in 2013-2014; about 90 mares were dosed with the contraceptive drug PZP.
How many wild horses are on private ranch land in Canada is anyone’s guess, but the numbers are far fewer than in adjacent U.S. states. ANIMALS 24-7 in 2018 saw and photographed small, isolated bands on privately owned land north of Kamloops, British Columbia, and south of Swift Current, Saskatchewan. Among the bands, the wild horses in total numbered in the low dozens.
Yet as few and as scattered as the western Canadian wild horses are, under as much pressure, they have persisted through more than a century of sporadic attempts to capture and kill them all. (The 2014 contraceptive effort was a first.)
Separating the sheep from the pronghorn from the horsefeathers
Meanwhile in the U.S., the 10 states now harboring horses on Bureau of Land Management property also host about 70,000 bighorn sheep, a protected species, only two subpopulations of which are considered endangered.
In addition, the 10 wild horse range states host one million pronghorn, who are descendants of as few as 13,000 who survived unrestrained hunting and habitat loss in the 19th century.
Wild horses tend to reproduce much more rapidly than either bighorn sheep or pronghorn, with more generalized habitat needs.
Thus, whatever other threats confront wild horses, including drought, wildfires, and other effects of global warming that have significantly reduced the maximum carrying capacity of the range from whatever it once was, imminent extinction is not among them.
Return wild horses to where?
Despite frequent roundups that have put far more wild horses into Bureau of Land Management holding pens than remain in the wild, the wild horse population left on the range is still growing––which is precisely why fertility control, long under discussion, is at last close to being funded and implemented.
Opponents of fertility control argue, as Feral put it in April 2019, that the Bureau of Land Management 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.”
There are, however, no states in BLM-managed wild horse range where “wild horses have been wiped out,” and indeed none hosting fewer wild horses now than ten years ago.
The 1.5 million cattle and sheep remaining on BLM land in wild horse range states are already fewer by more than half from the numbers of 1971.
In addition, among the 100 U.S. Senators are 20 representing wild horse range states in which the oil, gas, mining, and ranching industries are economically and politically dominant. In political terms, this means that any proposal that these industries oppose would need nearly two-thirds support from the rest of the Senate to pass.
“The Marr plan”
A “dark horse” management proposal advanced by wild horse advocate Anthony Marr calls for adopting a “neuter/return” approach, sterilizing the horses now in holding facilities and returning them to their capture sites, to occupy the carrying capacity of the habitat in a manner that inhibits population growth. Marr believes a further 10% reduction of the cattle and sheep population currently on BLM land could accommodate the short-term increase in the numbers of wild horses that would result, before sterilization, predation, and other attrition could bring the population down.
But the Marr proposal has come very late in the legislative process producing the plan advanced by HSUS, the ASPCA, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation, and any approach that puts more horses on the range, even temporarily, is presently a political non-starter.
How many horses “belong” on the range?
In short, if William Perry Pendley in addressing the Society of Environmental Journalists limited his horizon for assessing contentious issues to the matters on his desk at that moment, he may have been right that wild horses and burros are his biggest headache, not only because of the multiple dimensions of the wild horse and burro problem, but also because of the intransigence of the people and organizations involved, and the number of warring factions among them.
The basic realities include that whatever number of horses and burros the western range can or should support, it has been reduced from peak by climate change; there has never been any authentically humane, practical and sustainable destination for most of the horses and burros removed from the range; and keeping ever-growing numbers of horses in holding facilities is economically unviable.
How many horses & burros “belong” on the range has been in dispute for decades.
Even as some major national animal advocacy organizations say “all of them,” along with their natural predators, including pumas, grizzly bears, and wolves, ecological nativists, represented by much larger organizations including the Nature Conservancy and Natural Resources Defense Council, and including the U.S. National Park Service, say “none.”
Well, well, well
That dispute has heated up at Death Valley National Park, in particular, following publication of research by Australian biologist Erick Lundgren and University of New Mexico biologist Astrid Kodric-Brown, which suggests that surface water wells dug by burros using their hoofs, a behavior shared with wild horses, are essential to the survival of many native plants and animals.
Lundgren and Kodric-Brown suggest that burros are replicating the behavior of Pleistocene mammals, including their own distant ancestors, to the net benefit of cottonwood and willow trees, both migratory and resident birds, bobcats, coyotes, and foxes.
Since many of the beneficiary species are listed as either threatened or endangered, the finding that the burros are helping to create their “critical habitat” challenges the longtime dogma that the presence of the burros is doing habitat damage –– and leaves the Bureau of Land Management and the courts to referee the new rounds of litigation over the presence and activity of wild equids that will surely follow.