What are the problems with managing blm horses, and what solutions are agencies and advocates presenting?

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March 2009

The Wild Horse Dilemma

What are the problems with managing BLM horses, and what solutions are agencies and advocates presenting?

By Pat Raia

In October 2008 wild horse protection advocates, scientists, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Deputy Director Henri Bisson gathered at the Wild Horse and Burro Summit in Las Vegas, Nev., to strategize a solution to the BLM’s excess horse problem. Sponsored by the South Dakota-based International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros (ISPMB), the meeting was wild horse advocates’ most recent attempt to persuade Bisson to abandon euthanasia as a herd management option.

“The situation is beyond control,” said ISPMB President Karen Sussman. “Euthanasia is not an option, so we have to get people to work together.”

The BLM made international headlines on June 30, 2008, when Bisson announced the agency would consider exercising its long-held right to use euthanasia as a way to cope with increasing wild horse herds and a shrinking budget.

According to BLM Senior Public Affairs Specialist Tom Gorey, wild horse herds double every four years. Currently there are 33,000 wild horses on the range. Meanwhile, 22,000 horses age 5 years and older reside in long-term holding facilities, where they will live out their lives. Another 8,000 potentially adoptable horses reside in short-term facilities until they are placed in private homes.

In 2007 the BLM spent $22 million of its $39 million budget on holding facilities. Costs for 2009 are projected to account for $26 million of the agency’s total $37-million budget.

“Three-quarters of our budget goes for holding facilities,” Gorey says. “We contract with private ranchers to maintain the horses.”

The BLM assumed responsibility for managing wild horse and burro herds in 1971, when congress passed The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. At the time, wild horse and burros had access to 53.5 million acres of public lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming.

Since then, changes in land ownership and congressional public land use decisions diminished ranges open to horses in those states to 29 million acres, according to BLM documents. To prevent horses from overgrazing shrinking rangelands, the BLM removes wild horses from the ranges every four years. But at a cost of between $800 and $3,600 per roundup, gathering and maintaining horses is leaving the agency strapped, says Gorey.

Euthanizing horses that are aged, infirm, or unfit for adoption would reduce the agency’s long-term holding costs, Gorey says. According to BLM documents, it would cost the agency as much as $500 per head for veterinarian-supervised euthanasia and carcass disposal.

Since July 9, 2008, the BLM has been under congressional order to refrain from making any decisions in connection with the euthanasia option.

Wild horse protection advocates were outraged that the BLM would consider euthanizing its excess horses. But according to Sussman, many of them disagree about other key herd management issues, including contraception and the way the BLM administers its wild horse adoption program.

The Adoption Option

The BLM has long had high hopes that its program to place wild horses in private homes would serve as a major factor for preventing herd sizes from getting out of hand. After gathers take place, the agency culls mares and stallions ages 5 and younger for potential adoption placement. Anyone 18 years of age and older who has no prior animal cruelty convictions and can demonstrate the ability to provide appropriate feed and care in a U.S.-based home may adopt a single mare or stallion for a cost of $125, or a mare and foal for $250. Purchases may be made at scheduled BLM adoption events or online.

In the past 37 years, more than 235,000 horses have been adopted by private owners through the BLM. But the program’s herd control potential through adoption began to wane in 2007, when food and fuel cost increases created a soft market for adoptable horses. That year, 4,772 wild horses were adopted into private homes, 400 fewer than were adopted in 2006, and 929 fewer than were adopted in 2005. (At press time BLM had recorded 3,706 wild horse adoptions in 2008.) To rekindle interest, the BLM offered to sell some horses for as little as $25 a head.

Although wild horses advocates prefer adoption over euthanasia for herd control, program critics claim the combination of bargain prices and inexperienced buyers put horses at risk.

When four malnourished BLM-adopted horses seized by animal welfare authorities arrived at the Bluebonnet Equine Rescue in Texas, rescue co-founder and equine behaviorist Jennifer Williams, PhD, learned firsthand how BLM horses can suffer when adoptions go awry.

According to Williams, the horses had been handed off to a succession of owners who were unable to successfully train them. Along the way one horse became lame. The other three were deemed unmanageable by their owners. Following their rehabilitation at Bluebonnet, the lame horse was adopted by an owner willing to give it a pasture home for life. Another was successfully trained for pleasure riding purposes. The remaining two were transferred to a sanctuary established to accommodate BLM horses.

“The problem with the BLM adoption program is that people are attracted to the low cost of these horses.” she says. “But when they get them home, most people don’t know what to do with them.”

Veteran Colorado horse trainer Joe Andrews believes many BLM horses fail to thrive in domestic situations because their adoptive owners’ expectations are unrealistic.

“They’re looking at dollar signs and quick training for easy resale,” he says.

When training proves time-consuming and costly, owners are likely to sell the horses off to others willing to take on the challenge. But by the time many mustangs reach experienced trainers, they have been mishandled long enough to render retraining difficult or even impossible.

“I consider my success rate with mustangs to be 50%,” says Andrews, who is listed on BLM’s trainer referral roster.

The Texas-based Mustang Heritage Foundation is working to better those odds.

In 2007 the Foundation established its Trainer Incentive Program. The project allows qualified trainers to earn up to $750 for each mustang they purchase from the BLM, train, and place in a quality home. In order to participate trainers must make formal application, demonstrate suitable training experience, and prove a qualified person is committed to adopting the horse. Once accepted, trainers are required to start one horse. Trainers who successfully meet program requirements—including placing the horse in a quality home—can acquire and train up to four mustangs at a time. Two hundred BLM horses have been successfully placed in adoptive homes since the incentive program began.

“We’ve learned that a mustang trained even just to the halter level will be adopted,” said Mustang Heritage Foundation Executive Director Patti Colbert. “We believe by working with trainers we can get an even larger number of BLM horses adopted.”

In fact, organizations like Colbert’s could play an even larger future role in BLM horse placement. According to Gorey, the agency is pondering expanded partnerships with private-sector organizations to promote the agency’s adoption program.

Meanwhile, Williams wants post-adoption monitoring worked into the existing BLM adoption plan.

“Without post-adoption follow-up, the program is flawed and horses are at risk,” she says.

PZP’s Potential

Wildlife fertility specialist Jay F. Kirkpatrick, PhD, believes contraception is the only long-term solution to the BLM’s excess horse dilemma.

“People can talk about adoptions and even euthanasia, but those only treat symptoms of the problem,” says Kirkpatrick, director of The Science and Conservation Center in Billings, Mont. “The problem is reproduction, and porcine zona pellucida (PZP) vaccination is the solution.”

Injected as a liquid or fed in pellet form to fertile mares ages 4 though 20 years, PZP acts as a foreign protein against which treated mares produce antibodies that attach to the mare’s sperm receptors on the ovum and block fertilization. Currently, a single PZP vaccination renders treated mares infertile for 22 months, but researchers are well on the way to developing a version with longer lasting results. The per-head cost for treating mares with PZP is $21.

The U.S. Forest Service has successfully used PZP to control the size of herds it manages on North Carolina’s Outer Banks and at the Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland for years, Kirkpatrick says.

But the vaccine has been in limited use only on BLM herds, even though Kirkpatrick says its per-head cost could save the agency millions by reducing the number of foals born annually and decreasing the need for the roundups that so many wild horse advocates oppose because of the practice’s effects on social and family relationships within herds.

Kirkpatrick credits the BLM’s roundup-focused institutional culture with the agency’s reluctance to embrace PZP vaccination.

“They’re rounding up mares anyway, so not treating them with PZP makes no sense,” he says.

The BLM has expanded its use of PZP via a 2006 Memorandum of Agreement with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). In October and December 2008, wild horses in Colorado and Utah received PZP vaccinations as part of that agreement.

Despite its potential for limiting foal production, reducing the need to warehouse or euthanize horses, not all wild horse advocates embrace the PZP option. Some argue that healthy herds are threatened when the vaccine’s efficacy diminishes and treated mares produce high-risk foals out of season.

According to Kirkpatrick, data indicates that out of season foals are no more at risk than those born in season. But Sussman would rather see the BLM cease gathers altogether on the grounds that gathers irreparably fracture strong social and family relationships within wild horse bands.

“Let’s say that a whole community is told that there are too many people in every house and that some people from every house needed to be removed,” she says. “In some houses there may be little kids who have no parents; some would single parent families. That’s what happens in wild horse gathers.”

Gathers also leave herds bereft of experienced leadership, she said.

“Pulling older, wiser stallions out of the herd and returning younger ones to the range is like putting a fifth grader in charge of a first grader,” says Sussman. “Breeding takes place more frequently than it would if older stallions were left on the range.”

She’d rather put nature in charge of herd control.

Kirkpatrick rejects the notion.

“That would be like putting dogs in a kennel with limited food and water and leaving them alone,” he says. “It would only work if these horses were free to roam 400 miles to get to food and water. But these horses are not really free-roaming. Their ranges are fenced.”

Take-Home Message

While the debates rage, the BLM continues to remain under the congressional order to refrain from acting on euthanasia or any other wild horse management decisions until the release of a U.S. Government Accountability Office audit of the agency’s fiscal and managerial performance. Whatever the findings, pressure to resolve the recent national credit crisis and the change in White House leadership will undoubtedly postpone any congressional action on BLM wild horse issues well into 2009.

In the meantime, Sussman is preparing to meet with members of the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, as well as with congressional delegations from states where BLM horses reside.

“We’re going to ask for an immediate halt to gathers and a new marketing plan for the adoption program,” she says.

Kirkpatrick hopes she will discuss the issues in simple economic terms.

“You must lay out the amount of money the BLM is spending versus the amount of money it could be spending,” he says. “Until that happens, the BLM’s excess horse problem is not going to go away.”


High profile help

Wild horses now residing in Bureau of Land Management (BLM) long-term holding facilities might soon have a new home on the range thanks to Madeleine Pickens, wife of Texas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens.

At the Nov. 17, 2008, meeting of the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board in Reno, Nev., Pickens offered to adopt some 30,000 from the BLM and relocate them to a private 1 million-acre private refuge.

According to BLM Spokesman Tom Gorey, negotiations for the adoption are under way while Pickens acquires the private lands necessary to establish the refuge.—Pat Raia

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