Wild Horse Sterilization Plan for Oregon Scrutinized
Overpopulation of wild horses and burros has long been a focus for the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. Grazing land continues to deteriorate, along with herd populations’ health, but the battle to incorporate any kind of management plan continues to be thwarted by animal rights activists with deep financial pockets.
Wild horses and burros have no natural predators, and current adoption rates are decreasing steadily each year, according to BLM statistics. With the dropping rates and minimal to no interventions, the herd population continues to grow. As of May 22, 2018, the BLM estimated public rangelands were home to nearly 82,000 wild horses and burros in 10 Western states – the largest population estimate since the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed – and more than three times the number the 26.9 million acres of public rangeland the habitat can sustainably support in conjunction with other authorized land uses. At the same time, the BLM continues to care for approximately 45,000 unadopted and unsold excess animals in its off-range corrals and pastures, costing taxpayers $50 million annually – nearly two-thirds of the Wild Horse and Burro Program annual budget. BLM adopted out only 4,099 animals in 2017. According to BLM, the rate of adoptions has stayed around that number since 1996, but the number of wild horses and burros on ranges has doubled since 2012.
Despite much-needed management, plans for a mare sterilization study in the Warm Springs Herd Management Area near Burns, Oregon has struggled to make it off paper and into the fields. In 2016, 21 research projects planned to manage populations levels were shut down by activists.
Recent plans to revive similar studies included Colorado State University and mare sterilization; however, in spite of the study being supported by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (representing 9,300 equine veterinarians), CSU decided to withdraw from the program due in large part to pressure exerted by Wild Horse activist groups. In the 2016 planned study, Oregon State University took the same path, backing down to activist pressure.
On Aug. 8, CSU’s Vice President for Research, Dr. Alan Rudolph, released an email statement saying, “After careful consideration of multiple factors during the 30-day public comment period for the Warm Springs, OR, mare spay project, Colorado State University is withdrawing our partnership on the surgical spaying of mares.”
He added that the decision to withdraw was made with the support of the involved researchers.
“As a state university, we have investigated alternative population and birth control measures for wild animals for more than 25 years and remain committed to continuing to explore solutions to an unmet need,” he said.
The comment period was extended to Sept. 2, in the hopes that more original comments would come in.
“As we predicted, extremist groups flooded the BLM with comments in opposition of the study and 10-year management plan, mostly in the form of auto-generated comments. There were over 8,000 identical comments submitted from activists,” Protect the Harvest writes on its website. “These groups have a long track record of stopping the BLM from being able to make practical and logical steps to properly manage the horse populations and rangelands.”
According to the group, BLM still plans to move forward with the study, albeit, slightly revised.
“The Bureau of Land Management – Burns District, in conjunction the United States Geological Survey have updated the proposed research project regarding the feasibility of the spay procedure (standing surgical spay – ovariectomy via culpotomy) with horses from the Warm Springs HMA in Oregon. This is the same spay procedure that was performed on the fillies in our Wild Spayed Filly Futurity program,” the group shared.
“…The BLM must continue to pursue management actions to move toward achieving and maintaining the established appropriate management level (AML) on Warm Springs HMA and reduce the wild horse population growth rate in order to restore and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance and multiple-use relationship on public lands. USGS has updated their proposal to include only the behavioral research portion of the original proposal. Their study would take place on mares spayed by BLM as a management action,” BLM shared in a statement.
The study will evaluate safety, complication rate, feasibility, and impacts. In conjunction with the study, the Burns District – BLM proposes a 10-year population management plan for the Warm Springs HMA. http://protecttheharvest.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/CoverLetter_SpayEA_AdditionalComment_signed.pdf
Activists groups have dubbed the plan barbaric and praised CSU for backing out.
“CSU is a highly respected university with a top-notch veterinary program. The BLM somehow got the University to agree to participate in this ill-advised plan to study the efficacy, applicability and complication rate of spaying wild mares. The decision makers at the university must not have done their due diligence. If they had, they would have seen the horror behind the procedure, known as ovariectomy via colpotomy. This blind procedure, with the veterinarian’s arm up the mare’s vaginal cavity, rips out the ovaries by twisting, severing and pulling with a metal rod and chain called an ecraseur. It is considered so risky and dangerous to the animals involved, that it is not recommended for even tame domestic mares,” In Defense of Animals wrote in a press release.
But veterinarians and horse enthusiasts argue differently.
Twelve selected spayed fillies were offered for sale at the 2017 Reno Snaffle Bit Futurity. By the time of the sale, all of the fillies were spayed, vaccinated and handled for 30 days. These fillies were also invited back to the 2018 Reno Snaffle Bit Futurity to compete in their own division for a $25 K purse. The twelve fillies offered in this special event were selected from the Three Fingers, South Steen’s and Beaty’s Butte herds.
“The goal of the Wild Spayed Filly Futurity is to showcase the significance and abilities of these resilient, tough and beautiful horses,” Protect the Harvest writes. “It will also demonstrate their trainability and hopefully encourage more people to consider a horse from our American rangelands. A second and very important goal of the program is to help find economical, safe solutions in controlling the numbers of horses on American rangelands which will allow people to appreciate them in a healthy, balanced environment in the wild.”
Protect the Harvest, an advocate of multiple use on Federal Lands, believes this method to not only be the safest, but also the most cost effective. According to researchers, the cost of each 15-minute surgery is about $300, less than one dose of injectable birth control vaccine involved in previous management studies.
As the management battle continues, congressmen continue to put in their two-cents.
Last year, the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board raised the ire of Congressman Vern Buchanan (R-Florida), with discussion of euthanizing or selling, without conditions, up to 45,000 wild horses.
“It is disgraceful that the Board, whose purpose is to provide sound advice on the management of wild horses, would even consider euthanizing these horses as a plausible management technique,” Buchanan’s wrote in a letter to BLM officials.
His stand on the topic has gained the attention of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), who recently honored him as a “legislative leader” for his “support for outlawing horse slaughter, banning cosmetics testing on animals and protecting endangered species.”
As of print date, BLM’s plans are to continue. In a statement, BLM announced they intend to:
… use the same surgical protocol originally approved by the CSU IACUC. BLM-contracted veterinarians would be required to have experience performing ovariectomy via colpotomy and standing sedation on at least 100 ungentled, wild horse mares. The BLM and contracted veterinarians would monitor the mares during and after surgery to provide data for the three specific aims related to the surgical portion of the project (described above). Because the procedure would still be carried out by experienced contract veterinarians, and the surgical protocol is unchanged, the departure of CSU’s team does not affect the procedure’s anticipated outcomes.