Adoption numbers for wild horses removed from the range have been flat for years at around 3,500 per year, but, according to the BLM, those numbers topped 7,000 in 2019.
Adoption numbers for wild horses removed from the range have been flat for years at around 3,500 per year, but, according to the BLM, those numbers topped 7,000 in 2019.

A plan for managing the West’s burgeoning wild horse population is waiting for approval and funding from the U.S. Senate. Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $35 million in increased funding for the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro program as part of the new plan, which many are calling an unprecedented alliance between animal rights groups and the livestock and farming industries. Its backers include the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Return to Freedom Wild Horse Coalition, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation—but many wild horse advocates in Nevada hate the plan.

The Senate committee included the $35 million increase as part of the $35.8 billion Interior Department appropriation bill it approved on Sept. 26. It’s not clear when the full Senate will consider the measure. The plan, called “The Path Forward for Management of BLM’s Wild Horses & Burros,” was negotiated between the groups that back it over the course of several years. It includes four main actions to be taken that the coalition believes can provide “solutions for the short and long-term health” of wild horses, burros and Western rangeland:

“(1) Relocate removed wild horses and burros to more cost-effective pasture facilities, (2) Contract with private parties to secure lower-cost leasing of land for long-term humane care of removed horses and burros, (3) Apply proven, safe and humane population growth suppression strategies to every herd that can be reached utilizing trained volunteers, Agency staff, and animal health professionals, as individual HMAs dictate to prevent repeated gathers and (4) Promote adoptions in order to reduce captive populations and costs.”

According to the BLM, there are nearly 90,000 wild horses on public land currently and another 50,000 in contracted long-pasture care and in BLM storage facilities. The goal of the “Path Forward” plan would be to reduce the number on the range to closer to 27,000 horses—the number the BLM says Western rangelands can support. But wild horse advocates in Nevada say the plan is too vague, and many are worried that it could lead to even more horses in storage and potentially even horse slaughter.

“It’s not a good path forward—and I think the main problem is that the Humane Society, with whom I have worked, and ASPCA, don’t know better,” said longtime horse advocate and author Terri Farley. “They don’t have a history working with the BLM. And the main problem, I think, with this … is that it has no teeth. If BLM doesn’t go along with this, there seem to be no repercussions.”

The plan would call for the removal of 15,000-20,000 wild horses from the range via controversial roundups during its first three years—a number the plan says would likely “drop to 5,000-10,000 per year for the remainder of the proposal term as fertility control takes effect.”

Farley also has problems with some of the specific language in the plan.

“It says that the roundups will be accelerated in areas where it’s politically sensitive,” she said.

In fact the plan does cover this, suggesting that the BLM prioritize roundups in areas where “rangeland degradation and direct political conflict with the BLM’s multiple-use mandate” are concerns.

Advocates with the American Wild Horse Campaign—which runs a fertility control program on the region’s famous Virginia Range wild horses—object to the plan’s vague language where population control strategies are concerned. AWHC endorses the use of contraceptive called Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP), which is administered to mares in the wild via dart. They want the BLM to use the same drug to help control horse populations but worry the agency could resort to measures like spaying mares.

“Right now, I mean, you’ll find the groups that endorse the plan,” said Suzanne Roy, executive director of AWHC. “They say, ‘We don’t believe the BLM can do spaying because we don’t believe it’s safe and humane.’ But if the BLM says it’s safe and humane, then that’s who’s deciding. There’s no restrictions on it.”

“The Path Forward plan is a general kind of an idea, is what I’m seeing,” added Greg Hendricks, AWHC’s director of field operations. “The issues that I think many of us have … is that the plan lacks the details that protect the horses. And one of the elements, obviously—when they talk about some type of population control, that’s a really general statement, and a lot of things can fall into that. Without some kind of definition of what they’re going with, what they’re considering, they could put all kinds of things on the table that would affect horse behavior and horse hormones and potentially be negative toward the horses’ health, like new treatments that haven’t been tested appropriately.”

Deb Walker, the group’s Nevada field representative summed up her own objections, saying, “It’s just not written tight enough to make me feel like the horses and burros are going to be taken care of appropriately—on the range or in holding.”

But representatives from the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program have indicated that these concerns may be premature.

“The BLM is actually still reviewing that plan that was submitted,” said Jason Lutterman, a national spokesperson for the program. “You know, I think it aligns a lot with what the BLM has been doing and plans to do, but we’re still reviewing that right now.”

“Also, that hasn’t been signed yet,” said Jenny Lesieutre, the program’s Nevada spokesperson. “So that’s the current language in there. That’s important to note—that, until it’s signed, that $35 million is just what’s being presented.”

Lesieutre also pointed out that the agency’s management of wild horses—including things like gathering them from the range and administering fertility control—requires a public process mandated by the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA).

“Bottom line, all gather plans go through the NEPA process,” she said. “So, it’s very clear per gather, by gather what kind of population suppression that is utilized per that area—is or isn’t utilized. So, a NEPA process is done through the public input process, and therefore that’s what we have to stick to. So, although the concern may be there, currently, it’s only approved suppression techniques.”

On Sept. 26, the Senate sent a seven-week continuing resolution to the president’s desk, delaying the possibility of another government shutdown—and very likely answers to questions surrounding the Path Forward plan—until Nov. 21.

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