National Research Council's New Wild Horse Report Tells BLM "Your ?Business-as-Usual' Practices Will Be Increasingly Expensive and Unproductive"

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Guy Palmer, DVM, PhD of Washington State University led the National Research Council study, whose report on BLM wild horse management was released today.

Note: An informational webinar on the wild horse study is planned to explain the report to the public. On Tuesday, June 18, 2013 at 11:00 am EDT,?Dr. Palmer will give a 30-minute online presentation followed by a question-and-answer period. Advanced registration is recommended.

What does the future hold for wild horses and burros roaming on land managed by the?U.S. Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) in the western part of the United States?

An independent report was provided to the BLM today that recommends re-thinking the current practice of removing free-ranging horses from public lands; experts found that his practice promotes a high population growth rate, and maintaining them in long-term holding facilities is both economically unsustainable and incongruent with public expectations. The new report by the National Research Council is 630 pages long and addresses a long list of issues related to both the horses in holding and the horses roaming free.

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The report, Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward, says that tools already exist for BLM to better manage horses and burros on healthy ecosystems, enhance public engagement and confidence, and make the program more financially sustainable. It also provides evidence-based approaches that, if widely and consistently implemented, can improve the management of these animals on public lands in the western U.S.

The committee that wrote the report determined that most free-ranging horse populations are growing at 15 percent to 20 percent a year, meaning these populations could double in four years and triple in six years. With no intervention by BLM, the horse population will increase to the point of self-limitation, where both degradation of the land and high rates of horse mortality will occur due to inadequate forage and water.

In addition, periodic droughts, many of them severe, in the western public lands cause immediate and often unpredicted impacts. There is little if any public support for allowing these impacts on either the horse population or the land to take place, and both go against BLM's program mission.

However, the current removal strategy used by BLM perpetuates the overpopulation problem by maintaining the number of animals at levels below the carrying capacity of the land, protecting the rangeland and the horse population in the short term but resulting in continually high population growth and exacerbating the long-term problem.

To manage horse populations without periodic removals, widespread and consistent application of fertility control would be required, the committee determined. Three methods in particular -- porcine zona pellucida (PZP) and GonaCon? for mares and chemical vasectomy for stallions -- were identified as effective approaches.

"The committee recommended these approaches based on the evidence of their efficacy with other populations, notably the horses on Assateague Island, but cautioned that scaling up use of these methods to the larger and more disseminated horse populations in the western U.S. will be challenging," said Guy Palmer, a veterinarian with Washington State University and chair of the study committee.

The committee also strongly recommended that BLM improve and standardize its methodology to estimate population size, stressing the importance of accurate counts as the basis for all management strategies. A large body of scientific literature suggests that the proportion of animals missed in current surveys ranges from 10 percent to 50 percent.

Additionally, an examination of the genetics and health of population groups as well as of the range lands they occupy can be used to assure that both the animal populations and the ecosystem are being appropriately managed. Developing an iterative process whereby public participants could engage with BLM personnel scientists on data gathering and assessment would increase the transparency, quality, and acceptance of BLM's decision-making process.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. Panel members, who serve pro bono as volunteers, are chosen by the Academies for each study based on their expertise and experience and must satisfy the Academies' conflict-of-interest standards. The resulting consensus reports undergo external peer review before completion.

Key findings of the report include:

  • Management of free-ranging horses and burros is not based on rigorous population-monitoring procedures.
  • On the basis of the information provided to the committee, the statistics on the national population size cannot be considered scientifically rigorous.
  • Horse populations are growing at 15-20 percent a year.
  • Management practices are facilitating high horse population growth rates.
  • The primary way that equid populations self-limit is through increased competition for forage at higher densities, which results in smaller quantities of forage available per animal, poorer body condition, and decreased natality and survival.
  • Predation will not typically control population growth rates of free-ranging horses.
  • The most promising fertility-control methods for application to free-ranging horses or burros are porcine zona pellucida (PZP) vaccines, GonaConTM vaccine, and chemical vasectomy.

In response to the report, Holly Hazard, senior vice president of programs and innovations for The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), issued the following statement:

"The current wild horse program has been a fiscal and animal-welfare disaster, and the BLM needs to get off this treadmill. It's time for a new way forward that is better for horses and better for taxpayers.

"We're pleased to see that many of the committee's key findings echo the long-standing concerns that The Humane Society of the United States has posed to the department. We hope that the new leadership will take these findings seriously and begin to make management decisions through a collaborative process that involves both the agency and the public, as recommended in the report. To that end, The HSUS has developed a proposal to present to the agency for a bold new program that meets the challenges of the budget, the horse population and land-use issues head on. We plan to present this to the department within the next few weeks."

Pre-publication copies of Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward are available from the National Academies Press on the Internet at or by calling 202-334-3313?or 1-800-624-6242.

About Dr. Palmer: According to his biography on the Washington State University website, Guy Palmer, DVM, PhD, (honoris causa) holds the Jan and Jack Creighton Endowed Chair in Global Health at Washington State University where he is Regents Professor of Pathology and Infectious Diseases and is Professor of Life Sciences and Bioengineering at the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology. Dr. Palmer serves as the founding Director of the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health, a multi-disciplinary institute with the mission of addressing global disease challenges through research, education, global outreach, and application of disease control at the animal-human interface.

Material from an NRC press release was used in the creation of this article.