BLM's Wild Horse Plan Revision: Will It Be Enough? (Will It Ever Be Enough?)

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It hit the streets like the front-page news we knew it would be. But was it news?

Today was the day that Bob Abbey, Director of the Bureau of Land Management, announced that the agency is "accelerating fundamental reforms to how it manages wild horses and burros on public lands". At last! The long-awaited document was released to the public in an abbreviated 8-page summary, and now the comments are starting to roll in. Publication of the plan had been postponed from previous announcements in 2010.

The report follows the passing of last week's Burton Amendment in the US House of Representatives, which effectively cut $2 million from the BLM's wild-horse storage budget for the coming year. This was intended as the Republicans' financial wrist-slap to get the BLM's attention about the seemingly unsustainable bill to US taxpayers to maintain massive holding pens and pastures for the horses.

At the same time, when the Burton Amendment was under discussion, a Democratic representative called for expansion of birth control programs by the BLM, but the House did not specifically suggest that, or appropriate any money for it.

The BLM's proposed strategy announced today includes a possible 25 percent reduction in the number of wild horses removed from the range for at least the next 2 years; reaffirming the central role that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS)'s on-going review of the program will have on science-based management decisions; increasing adoptions; significantly expanding the use of fertility control to maintain herd levels; and improving its care and handling procedures to enhance the humane treatment of the animals.?The BLM will continue to oppose the killing or slaughter of wild horses or burros as a management practice.

"We've taken a top to bottom look at the wild horse and burro program and have come to a straightforward conclusion: we need to move ahead with reforms that build on what is working and move away from what is not,"?Director Abbey said.?"To achieve our goal of improving the health of the herds and America's public lands, we need to enlist the help of partners, improve transparency and responsiveness in the program, and reaffirm science as the foundation for management decisions. ?It will take time to implement these reforms, but as a first step we are aiming to increase adoptions and broaden the use of fertility control.?And while we do this, we are reducing removals while NAS helps us ensure that our management is guided by the best available science."

But the changes listed in the document sound more like minor tweaks than "accelerating fundamental reforms to how it manages wild horses and burros on public lands".

Specifically, the BLM's new plan proposes these "changes":

NAS study?The BLM has commissioned the National Academy of Sciences to review previous wild horse management studies and make recommendations on how the BLM should proceed in light of the latest scientific research.?The NAS review is expected to be completed in early 2013. ?Specifically the study will look at the methods for population modeling, the annual rates of population growth, fertility control methods, evaluation of carrying capacity of various lands to support wild horse herds, genetic diversity in wild horse herds, and predator impact on wild horse population growth.

Issue Procedures to Facilitate Long-term Care by Partners -- The BLM will release within the next 30 days specific procedures by which members of the public can apply to enter into partnerships with the federal government for long-term care of wild horses that are removed from the public rangeland.

Increase Science-Based Fertility Control. ?The BLM proposes to significantly increase the number of mares treated with fertility control - from 500 in 2009 to a target of 2,000 in each of the next 2 years during the NAS study, pending sufficient budget allocations.?Director Abbey said the BLM's ultimate goal is to make various fertility control measures the primary means to maintain healthy population levels.?He said the BLM intends to work closely with the Humane Society of the United States to implement and monitor this expanded effort.

Reduce Removals - The BLM intends to reduce the annual number of wild horses removed for at least the next 2 years from 10,000 to 7,600 - a level that would essentially maintain the current number of wild horses and burros on the range. The NAS review would be completed in early 2013. Abbey said that while drought or other emergencies may require the removal of more than 7,600 animals, the BLM has decided to adopt this more conservative approach pending input from the NAS regarding the number of horses than can be safety and humanely left on the open range.

An analysis of the public's comments and a detailed proposed implementation strategy will be posted at on February 28, 2011.?The public is invited to review and provide comments to the BLM on this strategy through March 30, 2011, and should be submitted by email to with "Comments on Strategy" in the subject line.

The entire BLM summary document can be downloaded as a PDF file:

The first comment I saw came from Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). While Pacelle praised the BLM for some of the points in its plan--including the increased use of fertility control, a program long supported by HSUS--Pacelle's overall comment could be summed up when he wrote in his blog, "A paradigm shift is needed in this program, not just a course correction." Pacelle's comments can be read on the HSUS web site.

Personally, I question the efficiency and financial validity of adding another layer of government agency collaboration. Scientific management of the horses sounds like a valid idea, but what has the BLM, with all its staff, resources and historical data, been basing its decisions on until now? It seems like a two-year NAS study, if there is to be one, should be independent, perhaps reporting directly to Congress or to the Department of Interior, not operating under the BLM.

A Presidential commission might be in order, at this point.

I may be one of those people sitting on the east coast criticizing what's going on out west. I may not know much about the politics of public land use in the western states. But I think it's time for the U.S. Government to treat the issue of managing wild horses as a national wildlife crisis, exclusive of land-use politics. It's time for the government to stop thinking of wild horses as a necessary nuisance and start thinking of them, first and foremost, as endangered wildlife.

I'm sure the NAS would assemble a blue-ribbon panel of land-use, geology, geography and zoology academics from the universities of the western states to scrutinize how scientific the BLM has been in designing and implementing its management scheme. But the BLM doesn't tell us to what end that science would serve the horses, since the Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act is what needs to be defended not scientifically analyzed, or affect a long-range solution to the currently unsustainable warehousing of wild animals.

And how long would it take before any NAS suggestions could be implemented? The slow movement of such studies, along with the ensuing pilot studies, feasibility studies and requests for funding, buys the BLM probably five more years of unscientific management under the current system. And who knows if any new programs will be funded for the BLM budget in the future? How much will the NAS study cost?

Don't let the wild horses go the way of California condors, polar bears,? sea turtles and whooping cranes, so that the US Fish and Wildlife Service ten years from now will have to ask Congress for a huge budget to reintroduce genetically-viable descendants of the last truly wild horses, captive-bred in some pens somewhere, into a tiny corner of a native Nevada habitat.

If the BLM has reached a dead-end in their ability to find ways to manage the wild horses, the agency should cry "uncle!" and turn the management of horses over to a different government agency.? Perhaps the endangered habitat of the wild horses has itself led to the endangered status of these animals. It may not be their numbers, but the way they are perceived that would classify them as a new type of "endangered".

Endangered by 40 years of well-intentioned but ultimately unsustainable management of a wildlife species by a land-use agency. Before our very eyes, the US Government has enabled the BLM to put the wild horse in a class of wildlife all its own. The wild horse's plight has been our doing. Our tax dollars at work created this mess.

Wouldn't we be better off finding a way out of the current unsustainable system now, instead of perpetuating plans that would only lead us further in? Wild horses are the only wildlife species I can think of that are endangered by the very system empowered to protect them.

Shaded segment is directly quoted from the BLM. Top photo by Alexxandra R. Duschner