Wild Horse Update: Department of Interior Proposal Revamps Future

by Fran Jurga | 8 October 2009 | The Jurga Report at Equisearch.comThe big news from Washington yesterday, for me, was not about healthcare or Afghanistan but about wild horses. I am printing for you here excerpts from the text of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s press release about his proposal to Congress to re-invent the way that our wild horses are managed…and where they are managed. I also suggest that you read the article in today’s New York Times for more on this developing story.

For my own take on this, I have to congratulate Mr Salazar for admitting that the current system isn’t working, and for trying to forge new solutions. The non-reproducing herds caveat is a big question for animal behaviorists–without reproduction, will there still be a herd?

But I would direct my questions to the environmental impact of relocating a large number of horses to any area; who will want them and how will they disrupt the native flora and fauna of such a large tract of land as would be required to truly adequately support a wild and free-roaming herd in a wildlife park setting? Wild horses are still protected by federal law so they’d have to still run free on thousands on acres, right?

I’d also hope that they would consult with the Australian Brumby Research Unit at the University of Queensland. A pilot study done there to switch groups of horses between different environments had mixed results. I’ve been told that years ago a mustang-to-Chincoteague swap was unsuccessful as well. A researcher from Queensland will be speaking on their wild horse studies at a special presentation in Missouri next weekend; read about the lecture here.

I don’t think there is an easy solution for this problem, and I am glad that the Department of the Interior is attacking it at its highest level. But they need lots of input. It reminds me of the problem of snow geese. And the problem of beavers. And the problem of deer. Those three species are the bane of suburban life around here. They just won’t go away on their own. Should they?

In my own coastal environment, I think of the hundreds of gray seals that live here now. There are thousands more further out on the coast of Cape Cod. They are a protected species. Ten years ago, seeing a seal was a big deal; now they are becoming quite commonplace and gather in large numbers. They’re out in the harbor outside my office, they’re on the beach right in town.

A beach on Cape Cod is closed off to humans because of the seals. They should not be disturbed, the environmental police say. That’s great. But the fishermen who make a living look on the sea are starting to do the math of his situation much as the cattle ranchers out west look at the horses. The seals are eating the fish. How many pounds of fish a day does each seal eat and just how many thousand seals are there? This summer, the seals were blamed for attracting a great white shark to Massachusetts waters. And how do you manage one (or more) of those?

Gray seals and wild horses may have a lot in common. Both species have their fans and their opponents. There are no easy answers when it comes to managing nature and introducing/transplanting species.

The following text, printed in red, was provided by the Department of the Interior.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today proposed a national solution to restore the health of America’s wild horse herds and the rangelands that support them by creating a cost-efficient, sustainable management program that includes the possible creation of wild horse preserves on the productive grasslands of the Midwest and East.

“The current path of the wild horse and burro program is not sustainable for the animals, the environment, or the taxpayer,” Salazar said in a letter outlining his proposals to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and eight other key members of Congress with jurisdiction over wild horse issues.

Salazar said he is “proposing to develop new approaches that will require bold efforts from the Administration and from Congress to put this program on a more sustainable track, enhance the conservation for this iconic animal, and provide better value for the taxpayer.”

The challenges to the BLM associated with maintaining robust wild horse populations in the West have been recognized by the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has warned that gathering and holding costs have risen beyond sustainable levels and directed the BLM to prepare a long-term plan for the program. The Government Accountability Office also found the program to be at a “critical crossroads,” affirmed the need to control off-the-range holding costs, and recommended that the BLM work with Congress to find a responsible way to manage the increasing number of unadopted horses.

In response to Congressional direction, Salazar’s proposals aim to achieve a “truly national solution” to a traditionally Western issue. A key element of the Secretary’s plan, designed to address concerns raised by the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Government Accountability Office, would designate a new set of wild horse preserves across the nation. Citing limits on forage and water in the West because of persistent drought and wildfire, Salazar said the lands acquired by the BLM and/or its partners “would provide excellent opportunities to celebrate the historic significance of wild horses, showcase these animals to the American public, and serve as natural assets that support local tourism and economic activity.”

The wild horse herds placed in these preserves would be non-reproducing.

In his letter, Salazar also proposed:

? Managing the new preserves either directly by the BLM or through cooperative agreements between the BLM and private non-profit organizations or other partners to reduce the Bureau’s off-the-range holding costs. This coordinated effort would harness the energy of wild horse and burro supporters, whose enthusiasm would also be tapped to promote wild horse adoptions at a time when adoption demand has softened.

? Showcasing certain herds on public lands in the West that warrant distinct recognition with Secretarial or possibly congressional designations. These would highlight the special qualities of America’s wild horses while generating eco-tourism for nearby rural communities.

? Applying new strategies aimed at balancing wild horse and burro population growth rates with public adoption demand. This effort would involve slowing population growth rates of wild horses on Western public rangelands through the aggressive use of fertility control, the active management of sex ratios on the range, and perhaps even the introduction of non-reproducing herds in some of the BLM’s existing Herd Management Areas in 10 Western states.

The new strategies would also include placing more animals into private care by making adoptions more flexible where appropriate.




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