Congress, Activists Eviscerate Land Management Over Horse Population Measures

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) wild horse and donkey control policies have raised the ire of Congressional Republicans and animal rights activists, who thoroughly raked them over the coals during a Wednesday hearing convened by the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands.

Some observers contend the population of wild horses and donkeys on federal lands is reaching crisis levels — BLM estimates that the current population of wild horses is approximately 67,000, a significant increase compared to recent years. The agency attempts to maintain a balanced ecosystem on the range by removing wild horses when the population exceeds Appropriate Management Levels (AML).

Dr. JJ Goicoechea, Nevada’s state veterinarian and the deputy administrator of the Nevada Department of Agriculture, reported during the hearing that certain Herd Management Areas (HMAs) in Nevada are anywhere from 600 to 2000 percent over AML. The average across BLM lands is 250% of AML. He fears the wild horse population in Nevada could exceed 100,000 in the next five years.

The overpopulation of wild horses portends forbidding threats to both the rangeland and wild horses. With finite resources and burgeoning herds, the range cannot sustain the current population. The problem is exacerbated by drought conditions that have plagued the Western US in recent years. As such, the last year saw an abundance of horses die of starvation and dehydration, while less forage is available for other species.

“These pictures we saw … remind me of the newspaper stories and pictures that we often see of animal control raids on homes that house scores and sometimes hundreds of neglected, starving, dying animals, the difference being these animals are under our care,” said Republican Rep. Tom McClintock of California, chair of the Subcommittee on Federal Lands.

Bureau officials contend that the wild horse population has increased so dramatically and so rapidly that they lack the resources to control the herds.

“The bureau is trying to do what we can with the tools we have and the funding that we have,” said Steve Ellis, Deputy Director for Operations at BLM. He further testified that most federally owned horse corrals and holding centers are at or slightly above capacity.

McClintock was unconvinced.

“It’s kind of hard for them to make that claim when they’re requesting less money for this program in next year’s budget, something I would normally commend, but in this case they’ve been obviously derelict in their responsibility to manage the lands,” he told The Daily Caller News Foundation after the hearing.

Several committee witnesses endorsed a policy of unrestricted sale, which would allow the federal government to sell horses in its custody to any buyer. Federal law places a variety of restrictions on the sale of BLM horses, including the 2004 Burns Amendment, which forbids the agency from selling to so-called “kill buyers” or slaughterhouses. BLM is also petitioning Congress to sanction a legal mechanism allowing them to transfer horses to other public entities in need of work animals. (RELATED: How BLM’s Latest Policy Initiatives May Open The Door To The Mass Slaughter Of Wild Horses)

Animal rights activists expressed serious misgivings about the proposal.

“Unrestricted sale will open the gates of holding facilities to the slaughter trucks and tens of thousands will be brutally killed,” Suzanne Roy of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign told TheDCNF. She also fears there is no realistic method by which to replicate humane methods for wild horse euthanization. “There is no humane and lovely way to kill 40,000 horses and their preferred solution — unrestricted sale — would result in the brutal slaughter of tens of thousands of wild horses in Canada and Mexico after a days long trip crammed into a slaughter truck without  food and water,” she said.

Activists further argued the overpopulation issue is largely a red herring. “Overgrazing and overpopulation are overgeneralized in nonscientific claims by the BLM to justify removals of horses and donkeys from our public lands,” Ginger Kathrens of the Cloud Foundation told the committee.

“Wild horses are restricted to just 12 percent of federal rangelands and their numbers are dwarfed by livestock,” Roy said. “As one wildlife biologist said, worrying about wild horses causing range damage is like the captain of the Titanic worrying about the ice in his passengers’ drinks instead of the icebergs in the ocean.”

For its part, McClintock says Congress is open to considering all options.

“We are looking at all of the options available to return these populations to sustainable levels and prevent the kind of mass starvation we’re seeing today as these populations overrun their habitats,” he said.

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