Editorial: No solution for wild horse overpopulation in budget

The wild horse can has been kicked down the road yet again.

Congress could not possibly find a way in its 2,232-page, $1.3 trillion budget that President Trump signed a couple of weeks ago to do anything whatsoever about the overpopulation of wild horses.

The Interior Department’s FY2019 budget at one time included this language: “The 2019 budget continues to propose the elimination of appropriations language restricting BLM’s use of all of the management options authorized in the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act. This change will provide BLM with the full suite of tools to manage the unsustainable growth of wild horse and burro herds.”

Among those tools could have been the humane slaughter of sick and unadoptable wild horses and burros that are starving on the overgrazed range in the West. That was the intent of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, but every federal budget since 2009 has prohibited this commonsense approach.

So we are stuck with spending $50 million a year to warehouse 46,000 “wild” horses in pens and pastures, while 73,000 roam free on grazing land that can sustain only 27,000 animals. The main population reduction method left for the federal land agencies is adoption. According to The Washington Post only 3,500 wild horses were adopted in 2017.

“We are thrilled that Congress has rejected this sick horse slaughter plan,” the Post quoted Marilyn Kroplick, president of the animal rights group In Defense of Animals, as saying in a statement that claimed horse lovers had “jammed Congressional phone lines with calls and sent tens of thousands of emails” to make their case.

On the other hand, in the real world, Utah Republican Rep. Chris Stewart in an op-ed in The New York Times in December, cited an example of the conditions on the ground, noting that in 2015 the Bureau of Land Management sent agents into the desert outside Las Vegas to round up about 200 wild horses that were reported to be starving to death.

“Bureau employees discovered nearly 500 horses,” Stewart wrote. “They had pounded their range to powder; the desert grasses that remained had been eaten to the nubs. Nearly 30 were in such poor condition they had to be euthanized, and many others were on the brink of death.”

The BLM had determined that the 100,000-acre expanse where these horses were grazing produced only enough grasses and water to sustain 70 horses, the congressman concluded.

Stewart advocated euthanizing excess horses. “I understand that some will recoil from this approach. But anyone who really cares about these majestic animals must understand that other efforts have failed to curb their exploding population and that culling these herds to numbers the land can sustain is the best way to prevent further suffering and death,” he concluded.

According to the BLM, if nothing is done, by 2020 there will be 130,000 feral horses and burros on BLM-controlled lands, still starving and dying of thirst and crowding out other species and competing with cattle and sheep for forage.

The BLM canceled a meeting of its National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board scheduled for late March in Salt Lake City when a member objected to using a 15-day public notice for “urgent matters,” instead of the customary 30 days. The terms of three board members expired on March 31. Another meeting will be scheduled once new members are seated.

That may be a futile gesture. At a 2016 meeting in Elko the advisory panel recommended “offering all suitable animals in long- and short-term holding deemed unadoptable, for sale without limitation or humane euthanasia.” The recommendation was ignored.

Meanwhile, nothing is being done to the relieve the suffering of feral horses.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Editorial: BLM finally exploring wild horse solutions other than warehousing

Wild horses in corrals in Carson City (R-J photo by John Locher)

It appears someone at the Bureau of Land Management has come to the belated conclusion that keeping nearly 50,000 “wild” horses and burros in short-term corrals and long-term pastures, which results in the taxpayers feeding them at a cost of $50,000 apiece for their average 25-year life span, is not the best solution to the problem.

Earlier this month the BLM announced it will initiate 21 research projects with a goal of being able to properly maintain a sustainable population of wild horses and burros on the open range, which would be a relief to the horses, the rangeland, water resources, ranchers and other wildlife.

Because they have virtually no natural predators, wild horse herds can double in size in four years. But since Congress refuses to fund the slaughter of unadoptable horses and burros, which was the designated remedy for excess animals under the original Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, more than 60 percent of the BLM’s $70 million annual budget for managing wild horses and burros is consumed by warehousing the animals, one of the largest corral complexes is in Palomino Valley near Reno.

Back in 1971 there were about 25,000 wild horses and burros on the range, but since then the number of animals on public lands has more than doubled to 58,150 — 9,000 of those were born in the past year alone.

Of course, the BLM is pursuing this research endeavor in the manner it knows best — spending our money. It plans to spend $11 million over 5 years.

The BLM says it will spend that money on university and U.S. Geological Survey scientists, primarily to develop longer lasting fertility-control vaccines, as well as efficient methods for spaying and neutering wild horses.

“Given the cost of caring for horses off the range and the difficulty of finding qualified adopters, it is clear that this challenge must be solved by addressing population growth on the range,” Mike Tupper, BLM Deputy Assistant Director for Resources and Planning, was quoted as saying in the BLM announcement, showing a knack for the obvious. “The BLM is committed to developing new tools that allow us to manage this program sustainably and for the benefit of the animals and the land.”

The specifics of the research projects include:

— A one-year project that will aim to develop a minimally invasive surgical sterilization method for wild horse mares that requires no incisions.
— Two projects that aim during a two-year period to develop different surgical approaches for tubal ligation in mares.
— A six-month project that will determine whether an existing accepted surgical sterilization procedure commonly used for domestic mares can be safely conducted on wild horses.
— A two-year project will focus on further study of Gonocon, an approved and labeled contraceptive vaccine for equids.
— A two-year study to develop a new, permanent contraceptive vaccine for wild horse mares.
— A four-year project that will attempt to develop a new delivery vehicle for porcine zona pellucida (PZP) — a temporary contraceptive currently used in some wild horse herds – that would increase the duration of the vaccine’s effectiveness.
— A three-year project for the development of an injectable agent that would inactivate hormones and decrease female and male gonad viability.

Nowhere is there even a suggestion of one of the most practical means of mitigating the overpopulation of the herds — humane euthanasia of sick and injured animals with their carcasses sold commercially to defray the cost to taxpayers. But that would take an act of Congress, which is even slower to act than the BLM.

Meanwhile, in another rare display of logical decision making this summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that wild horses are not eligible for listing under the Endangered Species Act, because they are not a distinct and native population. The decision came in response to a petition from two wild horse advocacy groups, who claimed the wild horse is threatened with extinction, even though the real problem is overabundance.

We welcome any effort by the federal land bureaucracies to save tax money and protect the open range.

A version of this editorial appears this past week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record.