The Failure of Horse Policy

Letter to EditorBend (Ore.) Bulletin
July 15, 2016

The headline for The Bulletin’s June 28 editorial is absolutely right and deserves some all-caps emphasis: “Wild horse policy is NOT working.”

This statement is true and has been for many years. The reasons for this are many but can be boiled down to a single underlying reason: We aren’t using science to determine appropriate numbers of wild horses on federal lands, nor to effectively and humanely manage them.

And this disregard for science is becoming ever more extreme. Ranchers who graze cattle on our public lands call for mass roundups of wild horses from the wild, using overblown and unsubstantiated claims about the effects wild horses have on the range.

In Nevada, a state veterinarian has suggested sterilizing ALL wild mustangs left on the range after massive roundups take place. And the U.S. Bureau of Land Management — the agency charged with protecting these iconic animals — is proposing the use of dangerous and backward sterilization surgeries on wild horses while setting the stage to overturn the federal protections that prohibit the export of wild horses to foreign slaughterhouses.

The proposal by BLM and Oregon State University to perform a barbaric procedure to remove mares’ ovaries by pulling them out with a chain is but one grim example.

All the while, the unscientific way BLM uses to determine how many wild horses can inhabit the range goes unquestioned. As do questions about why the agency isn’t making better and more widespread use of humane fertility control.

The National Academy of Sciences in a 2013 report questioned the BLM’s system of “Appropriate Management Levels” for wild horse ranges. The notion of how many horses are appropriate in specific Herd Management Areas using the AML system appears to be arbitrary. The academy wrote that it “could not identify a science-based rationale” for how AMLs are established.

Yet, AML numbers are always used as a way to say there’s an overpopulation of wild horses on federal lands. This, despite the fact that horses inhabit just 12 percent of federal rangelands and are outnumbered on these lands 50 to 1 by livestock

The academy report also stressed that the BLM’s system of rounding up and removing horses from the range merely exacerbated population growth by “facilitating high rates of population growth on the range.”

And it emphasized that using fertility control vaccine is “a more affordable option than continuing to remove horses to long-term holding facilities.”

In areas where wildlife managers have implemented careful and detailed management plans, fertility control with the PZP vaccine has resulted in controlled herd sizes and improved health of horses. A well-documented example is the Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland.

PZP is used in several Herd Management Areas in the West, yet BLM spends only 1 percent of its $80 million wild horse budget on this approach. If more widely used, PZP could help stave off the “billion dollar” crisis BLM is forecasting due to the failed system of roundups and removals. It would also spare these cherished animals from dangerous and invasive sterilization surgeries.

Use of PZP as an alternative to roundups, removals, sterilization and slaughter is supported by more than three dozen wild horse advocacy groups.

According to public opinion polls, three out of four Americans favor protecting wild horses and burros, while 80 percent oppose horse slaughter.

It’s true: Our wild horse policy is not working. It’s wasteful for taxpayers, harmful to horse and out of step with what the public desires.

Our state and federal decision-makers need to wake up, read the science and demand a better way.

Suzanne Roy lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina, and has been the campaign director of American Wild Horse Preservation.

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