Wild horses under BLM management are between a rock and a hard place | TSLN.com

Wild horses under BLM management are between a rock and a hard place

Wild horses and burros that are still on the range are most-likely in Nevada BLM public lands. Nevada is known to be a desert state without lush vegetation. The current population of wild horses is choking out native grasses. Photo by Gale Christensen.

The Bureau of Land Management currently has more than 45,000 wild horses and burros in government holding pens, costing taxpayers nearly $50 million annually. In Nevada, there are 35,000 wild horses and burros on BLM public lands, approximately three times the Appropriate Management Level (APL) which was established for “thriving natural ecological balance," said Ben Masters, who sits as BLM Wildlife Management Chair and is one of seven of the eight volunteer BLM Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board Members who voted in favor of destroying excess horses in holding pens to prevent overgrazing on the rangeland.

So what does the BLM do about these horses? Nothing. Their hands are tied.

The BLM is hammered with many lawsuits, some ill-placed but with good intentions, that place binds on the BLM and what they are allowed to do with the horses they are assigned to care for. Other lawsuits are helpful, but those are in the minority.

"There have been a lot of injustices the horses have had to endure since the 1971 WH&B (Wild Horse and Burro) act was passed and there have definitely been cases where lawsuits were needed. But right now the BLM is constantly dealing with multiple interest groups filing lawsuits and doing publicity smear campaigns. The amount of misinformation, half truths, and lies regarding wild horses and burro management on the internet is appalling," Masters said. "Currently there are over 20 lawsuits the BLM Wild Horse and Burro program is dealing with. Livestock operators and grazing coalitions are suing to reduce the numbers of horses, activists are suing to stop roundups to have more horses, and wildlife organizations are trying to get priority placed on ecosystem health so native plants and wildlife can have a future."

While each group has a specific goal in mind, these lawsuits place more and more binds on the BLM and limits their options for caring for horses in order to keep numbers at manageable levels.

"Rather than interest groups coming together, finding common ground, and compromising, nearly everything in the wild horse and burro program is accomplished with lawsuits and bitterness," Masters said. "The BLM is stuck in a gridlock and rather than making good plans looking into the future, they're limited to knee jerk reactions and doing gathers primarily in emergency situations. There are some small examples of cooperation at local levels but nationwide the wild horse and burro program is completely broken and headed down an unsustainable path."

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The Wild Horse and Burro Act specifically states: "The Secretary shall cause additional excess wild free roaming horses and burros for which an adoption demand by qualified individuals does not exist to be destroyed in the most humane and cost efficient manner possible."

This has not been done nor will it likely occur due to lawsuits and BLM policies. As stated on the BLM website, "The Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management care deeply about the well-being of wild horses, both on and off the range, and it has been and remains the policy of the BLM not to sell or send wild horses or burros to slaughter."

The concern for many, including Masters, is how to regulate wild horse and burro populations on the range at a sustainable number. "Horses have very few predators, reproduce quickly, and because there are fences, highways, and communities, they're living in a state of island biogeography with limited resources. When those resources get depleted and the horses have no place to go, starvation events can occur as well as severe rangeland damage," Masters said. He then highlighted that the use of fertility control, whether permanent or one-year options, is a viable avenue but is restricted due to lawsuits.

"BLM was going to conduct experiments to safely trap, neuter, and release, similar to what we do with dogs and cats and is very socially acceptable. BLM couldn't do experiments without being sued numerous times, which is kind of insane," Masters said. "The intention is to sterilize horses and allow them to live the rest of their lives on the range where they grew up. I'm not going to say I'm for or against permanent sterilization, but I believe it is important to do research."

Many who file lawsuits and sign petitions feel that land designated for wild horses is turned over to cattle, when, in fact, the population issue stems more from the fact that horses are free to reproduce at a rate of one offspring per year per mare and have few to no predators. No matter how much land is earmarked for the use of horses, this trend will continue without the aid of fertility control or sterilization.

"The big question is, how do we want public land to be managed? Do we want public land to have livestock grazing? Wild horses? Wildlife? How many of each and how can it be managed to where we don't have overgrazing occur? I think people get so caught up in wild horses versus livestock. I understand that because as far as a piece of public land pie, there are a lot more livestock, sheep and cattle, on public land, around 20 to one, but that is a misleading ratio because that is on public land nationwide, not just in the areas where wild horses and burros were protected in the Wild Horse and Burro Act," Masters said. "On the areas where wild horses and burros currently exist nationwide, about 31.2 million acres, the ratio of cow to horse is between 1:1 and 1:1.5 depending on the year and how much forage allocation is given to ranchers. A lot of areas where wild horses live, there isn't any cattle grazing. In areas where cattle grazing and horses both exist, the cattle numbers are dictated to time of year, number of cattle, and in drought years their usage is restricted or prohibited. Wild horses, on the other hand, are on the range all year long and can't easily be reduced or removed in a drought period."

Managing the land to where livestock, wild horses, and wildlife don't overgraze food resources is a concern to Masters. In drought years cattle can be reduced by the BLM restricting ranchers' access and Fish & Game can manage wildlife levels. There is no method in place to control wild horse populations. This results in the potential for overgrazing and damage to the rangeland.

Grasslands may be affected, both positively and negatively, by exposure to grazers of all varieties.

"In areas where livestock, horses, and wildlife all live, it creates these management challenges. How much resources are available and how to divvy them up? If a drought year comes, it's really easy for BLM to limit the amount of grazing by livestock. Fish and Game can issue additional permits for hunters to control populations of elk and deer to prevent winter habitat overgrazing," Masters said. "Some areas where horses are way over the appropriate management level, they are causing damage to perennial grasses and shrubs. It creates a vacuum to where noxious weeds and grasses that aren't palatable to wild horses or wildlife can take over. It's not a sexy topic. The big  danger out West is cheatgrass taking over and changing the fire regime from every century to every few years. If you have severe overgrazing, these perennial grasses and shrubs lose ability to compete with cheatgrass, medusa head, and other invasive annuals. Restoring those lands back to a native or healthy status can take decades, if ever, to recover."

The fault lies not with the horse but the management thereof, according to Masters.

"It's not fair to point at the horses and say horses are the problem," he said. "The horses aren't the problem; they do what every animal does, they just try to make a living. It's mismanagement that's a problem. Given the land we've inherited, we need to do our best to take care of it to the best of our abilities."

Taking the ‘wild’ out of wild horses

A wild horse or burro has three paths it may take through its lifetime. A horse may stay on the range its whole life, be transferred to short-term holding then into long-term pastures, or be adopted. Ben Masters, the BLM Wildlife Management Chair, is among the seven of the eight volunteer BLM Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board Members who voted in favor of destroying excess horses in holding pens to prevent overgrazing on the rangeland. He gives us a view into what these options for a wild horse or burro might look like.

Horses that live in the wild who don’t get rounded up live the wild lifestyle that we wish all of them could have. This is great as long as forage and water is available for them and overgrazing doesn’t cause ecological degradation. Because there are highways, fences, and development in the West, they live in isolated islands of rangeland. When those islands run out of resources, such as in a drought, the horses can run out of groceries. If the problem is severe enough, the horses can starve or thirst to death, forcing the BLM to do an emergency gather to save the ones that are still alive. This happened to thousands of horses in Nellis Airforce Base in the early ’90s and hundreds at the Cold Creek Area in 2015.
If a horse is in an area that gives out PZP or Gonacon to slow population growth, the mares are darted once a year. It probably stings a bit and can do some damage to the tissue but is not severe. That mare then continues to cycle and is exposed during the breeding season April to October but never gets pregnant.  Because they don’t get pregnant, they tend to live longer than breeding mares in the wild.

Horses that are gathered for population control are separated from their bands by sex; males are castrated, freeze-branded, and put into short-term holding facilities to await adoption. About 2,500 horses are adopted per year, usually the desirable ones that are big enough to ride and aren’t more than five years old. The horses that don’t get adopted sit in feed-lot type holding corrals eating hay for a few years until they’re eventually moved to a long term pasture, typically in the Midwest. At the long-term pasture, they eat grass off the pasture when it’s available and hay sometimes during the winter. The long-term pastures are separated by sex and the horses don’t breed, have family bands, or have a “wild” lifestyle anymore. Eventually, the horses in long-term have organ failure, an injury, or can’t get up from old age. They are then destroyed in the most humane manner possible. It costs about $50,000 for each individual horse’s lifetime that enters into this unsustainable program and there are 45,000 horses currently in short-term and long-term holding, costing taxpayers almost $50 million annually.

Horses that are adopted have a lifestyle that depends on who gets them. Some find wonderful homes. Some go to rescues. Some, after the owner gets the title after a year, go to slaughter in Mexico or Canada. Some are great riding horses, others pasture pets, and some help folks suffering from PTSD find healing.