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June 05, 2013

NRC Gets It Right in Panning BLM Wild Horse Program

For years The HSUS has been pressing the Bureau of Land Management to reform its broken wild horse management program. In March 2011, we’d hoped that the BLM had turned a corner and that long-awaited changes in the agency’s failed management paradigm were imminent when the agency announced its intent to open “a new chapter in the management of wild horses, burros, and our public lands” by fast-tracking “fundamental reforms” to its current policies and procedures. But then Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s promises never translated into the desired practical improvements, and the BLM continued on a reckless round-up and removal treadmill, characterized by surging captive horse management costs and a breakdown in public confidence in the agency, along with pain and separation for the horses.

WILD HORSESPart of the BLM’s proposed strategy in 2011 called for the commissioning of a National Academy of Sciences panel to review previous wild horse management studies and make recommendations for future approaches. Today, the National Research Council Committee to Review the Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse and Burro Program released its report and we’re pleased to see that many of the committee’s key findings echo the longstanding concerns that The HSUS has raised with the agency about the need to end its reliance on short-sighted roundups, and instead, to keep horses on the range while humanely limiting reproduction, through the application of a contraceptive vaccine.

The NRC committee report states that the BLM’s procedures for monitoring and surveying wild horses and burros are flawed, inconsistent, and may be “the product of hundreds of subjective, probably independent, judgments…of animals counted during surveys,” which means the agency doesn’t really know how many wild horses and burros are living on our public lands. It also states that the BLM’s practice of managing wild horses “below food-limited carrying capacity” by rounding up and removing a significant proportion of the herd’s population every three to four years is actually contributing to the high horse population growth rates. This is one of the factors contributing to a costly roundup and remove cycle (i.e. population growth rates are “increased by removals through compensatory reproduction from decreased competition for forage…As a result, the number of animals processed through holding facilities is probably increased by management.”).

The report also supports the need for the BLM to use a more comprehensive population and management modeling system “that evaluates the population dynamics of horses or burros in the western rangelands and in short-term and long-term holding facilities and the costs and consequences of management alternatives,” which could “help to identify the most effective or cost-effective management options to achieve the objectives or the achievable goals given available funding or policy constraints.” This is exactly what The HSUS envisioned when we commissioned economist Dr. Charles DeSeve to develop the Wild Horse Management System, a robust economic model that projects the costs and optimized outcomes of various wild horse and burro management regimes.

The Wild Horse and Burro program has been the subject of several NAS and congressional reports and investigations beginning at least in 1980 and the BLM leadership just never got it right in applying the recommendations. We are hopeful that the new leadership at the agency will take these new findings seriously. As the report concluded “The continuations of ‘business as usual’ practices will be expensive and unproductive.”

Finally, the report encourages the BLM to make management decisions that have been reached through a “collaborative, broadly based, integrated, and iterative analytic-deliberative” process that involves both the agency and the public. To that end, for the past six months, The HSUS has been developing a proposal to present to the agency for a bold new program that meets the challenges of the budget, the numbers of horses and land use issues head on. We hope that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has the ability and the fortitude to implement these recommendations and to finally turn around this long dysfunctional wild horse management program.

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