Cost-effective and humane ways exist to manage wild horses, says advocate

Overgrazing, overpopulation and unsustainability are over-generalized and non-scientific claims by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to justify removing horses and burros from public lands, a leading advocate claims.

Ginger Kathrens, who is executive director of the Cloud Foundation and serves on the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, tackled the agency over some of its key management strategies before a federal subcommittee in Washington.

The Subcommittee on Federal Lands, which operates under the House Committee on Natural Resources, held a hearing last week to explore the challenges and potential solutions for the BLM’s much maligned Wild Horse & Burro Program.

Kathrens told subcommittee members she was there to give voice to the vast majority of Americans who loved wild horses and burros and were committed to seeing them roam freely on their native home ranges as intended by the unanimously passed Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971.

Americans, she said, hated the idea of slaughter as a possible way to manage an alleged overpopulation of wild horses.

“There are reasonable, cost effective and humane ways to maintain healthy populations of wild horses and burros on their legally designated homes on the range.”

She said the BLM had so marginalized wild horses that most herds were too small to meet even minimal standards to ensure their genetic viability.

Kathrens traversed evidence on the issue, saying it was clear that genetic viability had to be considered when the BLM prepared its management plans.

She criticized the Appropriate Management Levels (AMLs) used as a benchmark for wild horse management by the agency, calling for a fairer allocation of available forage between wild horse and livestock.

She said a significant number of herd management areas had AMLs so low that they risked herd viability. Some, she said, were shocking.

“The Montezuma Peaks herd in Nevada on nearly 78,000 acres has a low AML of two and a high AML is four. The current population is 64 horses so the BLM reports this herd is 1600% over AML.

“The 377,000-acre Chicago Valley is within AML in which the high AML is 12 and a low AML is 10.”

She continued: “There appears to be no logical or consistent basis in for the setting of AMLs, most of whom jeopardize the future survival of many of the herds and are far lower than the 57,040 horses and burros reported after the first reported census in 1974.

Kathrens said there were likely fewer wild horses and burros on the western rangelands than when the 1971 federal act which protected them was unanimously passed, which stated that wild horses and burros were “fast disappearing from the American scene”.

She said livestock currently outnumbered wild horses and burros by 47 to 1 on the ranges they shared with wild horses and/or burros. And livestock grazed on far more acreage than wild horses – 251 million acres for livestock compared to 29.4 million acres for wild horses.

“Yet wild horses are often unfairly blamed for rangeland degradation.”

She cited a 1990 Government Accountability Office report which said: “BLM’s decisions on how many wild horses to remove from federal rangelands have not been based on direct evidence that existing wild populations exceed what the range can support.”

Kathrens continued: “While wild horses are routinely removed, livestock grazing frequently remains unchanged or increased after the removal of wild horses, increasing the degradation of public lands.”

A 2013 National Academy of Sciences report on the wild horse program said: “How AMLs are estimated, monitored and adjusted is not transparent to shareholders, supported by scientific information, or amenable to adaptation with new information and environmental or social changes.”

Kathrens argued there were reasonable, cost-effective alternatives for managing wild horses and burros, which did not require removing them from the range, including the use of contraceptive fertility control.

Speaking in support of public-private partnerships, she said there were bright spots in the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro program where herds were managed nearly exclusively with PZP or PZP-22, breaking the roundup and removal cycle.

“The goal of using PZP or PZP-22 is to limit reproduction humanely so that every foal born has the opportunity to live its life in freedom. Of course, the savings to the taxpayer is enormous.

“In only three years, the McCullough Peaks Herd east of Cody Wyoming is being maintained at the high AML level exclusively through remote darting, working with the volunteer assistance of Friends of a Legacy (FOAL).

“The nearby Pryor Mountains is nearly at the point where natural mortality and reproduction are equal.”

Kathrens, a documentary film-maker, said she had carefully studied wild horse behavior on federal lands for over 22 years — and filmed and documented their behavior for PBS/Discovery and others as well as for public advocacy groups across the nation.

“Wild horse family structures and daily interactions are complex and wondrous to behold – and social, family bands should be preserved in their natural environment, on their designated herd management areas on federal lands.

“America’s wild horses and burros have a legal and historical right to live freely on federal lands as established by constitutional provisions and public support in general.

“Overgrazing, overpopulation and unsustainability are over-generalized and non-scientific claims by the BLM to justify removals of horses and burros from public lands.

“Castration, sterilization, and long-term confinement in holding facilities are unnecessary, cruel, unhealthy, and fiscally irresponsible methods of controlling horse and burro populations – ultimately leading to the potential extermination of rare and native wild horse herds.

“We know from successful PZP programs and alternative management approaches that the government does not need to remove wild horses and burros from federal lands to effectively manage them.

“There are reasonable, cost effective and humane alternatives to current and/or proposed BLM wild horse and burro management policies/approaches; namely those including proper PZP application.

“Maintaining wild horse and burro herds in the wild can be financially and culturally beneficial to local communities as well as fulfill an iconic image of western heritage.”

Kathrens said revenue from wild horse viewing and photography was the main economic driver in the small towns of Maybell, Colorado, and Lovell, Wyoming, due to the presence of wild horse herds.

“Thousands of caring, thoughtful, well-informed, and well-trained volunteer field experts are available to assist federal agencies and organizations in implementing healthy and cost-effective alternative management approaches in the wild.

“America’s federal lands belong to us all – genetically viable wild horses and burros deserve a permanent and a fairly allocated piece of that land – a lasting home on the range.”

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