Wild horse management needs reform

Feb. 25, 2016 - Guest opinion by Suzanne Roy, American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign

The Western Governors Association recently penned a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management asking some tough questions about the agency’s management of wild horses and burros on public lands. This is good. The BLM’s current management scheme, which is focused on roundups and restricting horses and burros to unnaturally low numbers, is an unmitigated failure.

Unfortunately, though, the governors can’t seem to see past the current, BLM-created status quo. Based on their questions, it’s clear they think the current, unworkable system can somehow be made to function. It can’t. What’s needed is land-use policy and wildlife management based on common sense and science. That’s not what we have today.

Consider the issue of population. BLM says, and the governors seem to believe, that there are too many wild horses and burros on public land. This notion is based on the BLM’s own system of “appropriate management levels,” which isn’t based on science. Currently, BLM allows just 14,186 to 23,768 wild horses to roam on 24 million acres of public land — that’s just one horse per more than 1,000 acres! This is hardly overpopulation. Yet BLM continues to manage our lands and these animals based on these arbitrary numbers.

Additionally, appropriate management levels always seem to work in favor of commercial livestock at the expense of wild horses and burros. Currently, the agency allows 35 times more livestock than wild horses and burros to graze on public lands. And since 1971, it has reduced designated wild horse and burro habitat by nearly 40 percent (more than 15 million acres).

The National Academy of Sciences in 2013 said it could find no science-based rationale behind BLM’s appropriate management level limits. Making more room for livestock at the expense of wild horses and burros doesn’t provide much benefit to taxpayers, either. Publicly subsidized livestock grazing on public lands costs us more than $122 million annually, yet cattle grazed on public lands provide just 3 percent of the nation’s beef supply and cost taxpayers millions of dollars annually through subsidies.

In addition, taxpayers are spending an estimated $80 million annually to support this ill-conceived government roundup program, which strips wild horses and burros from their native lands and places them in government holding facilities for the rest of their lives.

This a broken system, one in need of dramatic restructuring. Solutions include managing wild horse and burro populations humanely via the PZP fertility-control vaccine. PZP has a 30-year track record of safe, effective use in wild horses. The BLM, itself, uses it in several management areas, as do various tribal and voluntary organizations throughout the West. Yet, as a whole, BLM resists wider use of PZP, despite the National Academy of Sciences recommending it as a more humane and cost-effective alternative to roundups.

Likewise, the notion of appropriate management levels — the number of wild horses and burros permitted to live on our public lands — must be revised in order to reflect the will of the American people, who support protecting wild horses over the use of public lands for private livestock grazing. Federally protected wild horses and burros are part of our history, and polls show three out of four American support wild horse and burro grazing on public lands. Additionally, 80 percent of the public opposes wild horse slaughter.

To ensure the humane treatment and preservation of these species and to curb the ongoing and growing waste of taxpayer resources, we need a new approach. Asking tough questions is a start. But for true change, the Western Governors, Congress and the BLM itself must begin to listen and start from the ground up with reform.

Suzanne Roy is executive director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, a national organization dedicated to preserving America’s iconic wild horses and burros in viable, free-roaming herds for generations to come, as part of our national heritage.

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