Feral horses are back in the news, not that they ever left, but there appears to be an honest effort to get the volume of feral horses in line with appropriate management levels (AMLs). We’ve talked about the feral horse situation for years and it finally seems that we might be getting somewhere. The multitude of activist groups that have hamstrung the issue for years have come to the table. There are over 88,000 feral horses out on Western rangeland today and that is sounding the alarm to act.

Last week a Senate subcommittee held a hearing on the horse problem. This was an effort to register the issue and put forth a proposal to implement a solution. The amazing thing to me was that this proposal—The Path Forward for Management of BLM’s Wild Horses & Burros—was agreed to by 13 groups including the Humane Society of the U.S., the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and NCBA. They all agreed that we must do something now to save the horses and burros, and the landscape itself, from self-destruction. This is an environmental, ecological issue that should have been dealt with years ago and finally all of the stakeholders agreed on how and when to manage the problem. This is remarkable.

There were five testimonies delivered to a very thinly attended hearing where everyone in attendance supported the proposal. JJ Goicoechea, Nevada state vet; Ethan Lane, Public Lands Council; Nancy Perry with ASPCA; Steve Tryon, BLM; and Dr. Eric Thacker from Utah State University all gave riveting testimony about the problem and the solution.

The solution is to gather horses and burros and place them in long-term pastures in the eastern part of the U.S. and begin a very aggressive anti-fertility program using spaying techniques and fertility drugs. The plan calls for increasing adoption levels from the current 4,500 head a year. So, gather, hold, fertility control and adoption. They think they can get to appropriate management levels in about 10 years, which is a tall order in this political world we live.

The BLM already spends about $80 million a year on the current horse management plan. These folks were essentially asking the Senate for more money and a congressional directive to start the enhanced program over the next few years to finally get the population under control. I can certainly see the need to double the funding and get this problem behind us so the multi-use of BLM lands can be productive again.

This is a bold plan and every step is essential. Perhaps the most challenging part will be administering fertility drugs on range animals which require repeat treatments to be effective. That aspect of the plan drew the most controversy with Perry claiming that the fertility drug PZP is wildly effective and its widespread use could solve the reproduction problem and defer the use of surgical sterilization. They also said that the window of opportunity for surgical sterilization on mares was narrow and we would have to be concerned about unborn foals. This effectively threw an abortion card on the table, potentially creating another emotional hurdle for the effort.

Nobody in the room mentioned the word “euthanasia” during the hearing, which tells me that that was a huge compromise these stakeholder groups had to make. Just how long can the BLM afford to keep an animal that has been passed over several times for adoption in long-term care? The BLM just started offering a $1,000 incentive for folks to adopt one of these horses or burros. One thing I learned was that burros are more adoptable than the horses. If you have seen some of the horses they gather, you would know why no one wants them.

The dark corner of this issue that nobody wants to talk about is that euthanasia and unrestricted sale of these horses is political suicide for politicians. This plan boils down to getting the horses off the range into long-term pasture situations and making them somebody else’s problem or someone’s gold mine. BLM is currently paying $2 a day for pasture and $5 a day for short-term, feedlot-type housing. I’ve seen feedlots with up to 1,500 horses, and it’s not a pretty picture.

In 2004 there were 31,000 horses on the range, close to the national AML of 27,500. There are now 88,000 on the range and another 50,000 in holding facilities. This is just the BLM’s portion of the problem. Then you have tribal land, U.S. Forest Service land, state lands which also have wildhorse problems. This issue is much bigger than most people think. It’s ready to explode and ruin these Western landscapes for good. — PETE CROW

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