helicopter gather

The Bureau of Land Management recently released permanent guidance standards for the humane treatment of wild horses and burros. Pictured here, wild horses coming into the gather site in Owyhee, NV. Photo by Nevada BLM.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently made permanent guidance standards for the humane treatment of wild horses and burros (WH&Bs). BLM’s Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program outlines policies and procedures to protect and manage the animals on public lands and off-range facilities under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

The standards were developed in 2015 by the agency with the assistance of Drs. Carolyn L. Stull and Kathryn E. Holcomb of the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. The 20-page document covers all aspects of the humane handling of WH&Bs from capture techniques to euthanasia and categorizes them into two standards: major and minor.

Wild horse advocacy groups were dismayed with the announcement stating despite “humane handling already a legal requirement,” they continue to witness “abuses that occur all too frequently at roundups.”

“Unfortunately, despite outgoing deputy director [William Perry] Pendley’s action, these standards remain guidelines, compliance with which is at the discretion of the BLM,” Grace Kuhn, communications director of American Wild Horse Campaign, told WLJ. “To be effective, these guidelines must become enforceable regulations, and they must be strengthened to ensure the humane treatment of wild horses and burros.”

Some highlights of the standards are as follows.

Facility design

All temporary holding facilities must be in working condition with sturdy materials, and pens must be capable of expanding with alternate pens available for weak horses and burros, including mares/jennies with dependent foals. Fence panels in pens and alleys must be not less than 6 feet high for horses, 5 feet tall for burros, and the bottom rail must not be more than 12 inches from ground level.

A visual barrier of at least 48 inches for gates and panels in the animal holding and handling pens and alleys of the trap site must be secure. There must be no holes, gaps or openings, protruding surfaces, or sharp edges present in fence panels or other structures that may cause escape or possible injury. Water must be provided at a rate of 10 gallons per 100 pound of animal and be refilled in the morning and evening.

Capture techniques

Under the lead contracting officer’s representative or project inspector, WH&Bs must be captured by helicopter or bait trapping. Snares or net gunning must not be used, and chemical immobilization is used under exceptional circumstances with veterinarian supervision. The guidelines state, “The helicopter must be operated using pressure and release methods to herd the animals in a desired direction and should not repeatedly evoke erratic behavior in WH&Bs causing injury or exhaustion. Animals must not be pursued to the point of exhaustion; the on-site veterinarian must examine WH&Bs for signs of exhaustion.”

Animals that are weak or debilitated must be identified and appropriate gather and handling measures should be implemented. For any mare/dependent foal pairs where half of a pair escapes during a roundup, multiple helicopter attempts may be used to reunite the pair. The roping of any WH&B must be approved before the procedure and documented along with the circumstances.

Animals captured by roping must be evaluated by the on-site/on-call veterinarian within four hours after capture and assessed. WH&Bs may be lured into a temporary trap using bait with traps with adequate water and hay and not be left unobserved for more than 12 hours or held longer than that period.


Dragging a recumbent WH&B without a sled, slide board, or slip sheet is prohibited. All sorting, loading, or unloading WH&Bs during gathers must be performed during daylight hours except when unforeseen circumstances develop. Aids such as flags and shaker paddles must be the primary tools for driving and moving WH&Bs during handling and transport procedures.

Ropes looped around the hindquarters may be used from horseback or on foot to assist in moving an animal forward or during loading. Electric prods must not be used routinely as a driving aid or handling tool and only used under limited circumstances.


The guidelines state, “An authorized, properly trained, and experienced person, as well as a firearm appropriate for the circumstances, must be available at all times during gather operations. When the travel time between the trap site and temporary holding facility exceeds one hour or if radio or cellular communication is not reliable, provisions for euthanasia must be in place at both the trap site and temporary holding facility during the gather operation.”

All euthanasia procedures must be according to the American Veterinary Medical Association euthanasia guidelines using methods of gunshot or injection of an approved euthanasia agent.

According to BLM’s press release, “All BLM employees, contractors and partners involved with handling animals are required to adhere to the humane handling standards and will complete annual training as part of the Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program.” — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor

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