Government report rips controversial wild horse program as ‘expensive and unproductive’

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Greg Campbell Contributor
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Wild horse activists are praising a new governmental report that backs up what they’ve been saying for years: not only is the Bureau of Land Management’s controversial Wild Horse and Burro Management Program ecologically and financially unsustainable, but there are better ways to keep the country’s wild mustang population in check than rounding them up and warehousing them in corrals.

The report by the National Academy of Sciences released Tuesday delivered a resounding rebuke to a program charged with maintaining historical herds of wild animals but which has resulted in far more of the animals penned up in expensive holding areas than exist on the range.

“The Wild Horse and Burro Program has not used scientifically rigorous methods to estimate the population sizes of horses and burros, to model the effects of management actions on the animals, or to assess the availability and use of forage on rangelands,” according to the report’s summary. “Evidence suggests that horse populations are growing by 15 to 20 percent each year, a level that is unsustainable for maintaining healthy horse populations as well as healthy ecosystems.”

Attempts by BLM managers to control herd population have relied in recent years almost exclusively on roundups, wherein the horses are herded into a capture area by helicopter. The animals taken from the range are stored in holding pens in the hope that they’ll be adopted.

Few are, however, and former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar spend the last few months of his tenure dodging accusations that hundreds were sent to slaughter in Mexico.

BLM currently holds more than 50,000 horses in captivity, with an estimated 38,000 roaming wild. The agency spends 60 percent of its budget — $43 million in 2012 — on expenses related to storing the animals.

During Salazar’s tenure, the cost of the program more than doubled since 2009.

Salazar’s replacement, Sally Jewell, has said she would wait until the NAS study was completed before deciding on changes to the BLM program.

The report blasted the BLM for using nonscientific methods to estimate horse populations, essentially guessing at how many horses and burros are in various herd management areas around the West, even though those estimates provide the basis for BLM’s management policies.

“[I]t seems that the national statistics are the product of hundreds of subjective, probably independent judgments and assumptions by range personnel about the proportion of animals counted during surveys, population growth rates, and other factors,” the report reads.

It also recommended a greater focus on fertility control over roundups and greater transparency with the public about its decision-making.

For its part, the BLM seems happy to have a road map to follow.

“The BLM shares the [NAS] committee’s view that although no quick or easy fixes exist to this pressing issue, investments in science-based management approaches, exploring additional opportunities for population control and increased transparency could lead to a more cost-effective program that manages wild horses and burros with greater public confidence,” said Deputy Director Neil Kornze in a statement.

It’s the first time in a long time that BLM managers and horse activists seem to be in agreement.

“The NAS report is a powerful validation of what wild horse advocates have been saying for years — that the BLM’s ‘business as usual’ is expensive, unproductive and must change,” said Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, in a statement on Tuesday.

“The report delivers a strong case for an immediate halt to the roundup and removal of wild horses from the range, an increase in wild horse and burro population levels and implementation of in-the-wild management using available fertility control options,” she said.

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