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April 2, 2010

The Calico Wild Horse Gather

Questions and answers

The Humane Society of the United States

Background

In late December 2010, despite pleas from wild horse advocates around the world to stop the senseless removal of mustangs from the American landscape, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) began the process of gathering more than 1,900 wild horses from the Calico Complex Herd Management Areas (HMA) in Nevada. Since then, the Humane Society of the United States (The HSUS) has received numerous complaints about the methods used to conduct the removals, which may have resulted in the injury and death of several animals, as well as the treatment of animals held at the short-term holding facility in Fallon. To address these concerns, the HSUS has been in constant communication with the BLM regarding these allegations and sent an equine veterinarian associated with the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association (HSVMA) to inspect the Fallon facility. The following article addresses some of the most frequently asked questions and expressed concerns regarding the Calico gather and the treatment of animals at the Fallon facility. 

1. Why is this wild horse gather so controversial?
2. Wouldn't the animals starve if left on the range?
3. If the BLM waits until starvation begins to occur, isn't that too late?
4. If the horses are scattered over 250,000 acres, how could BLM feed them on the range if range conditions begin to deteriorate?
5. What's wrong with gathering the horses and removing them now, and then beginning a contraception program when the horses aren't so far over AML?
6. Are the Calico horses being well cared for?
7. If adopted or moved to a preserve in the east, won't the horses suffer from a severe change in diet that they will have difficulty adjusting to?
8. Are BLM's gelding procedures humane?
9. Didn't the BLM drive colts to death during the gather by running them so hard their hooves sloughed?
10. Didn't several horses die after the gather from being provided feed that was too rich?

 

1. Why is this wild horse gather so controversial?

The Bureau of Land Management has established a maximum number of horses the agency deems can be supported by the land in each of the 199 Herd Management Areas (HMA) across 10 western states set up under The Wild Free- Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971. The number of grazing animals that a particular HMA can sustain, or the Appropriate Management Level (AML), is determined by management choices that balance the competing needs of wild horses, other wild grazing animals that live on the HMA, and domestic livestock that are permitted to graze on the same land. The problem is that, in the past, AML has been calculated and established for individual HMAS using old data and flawed methodology, and often, the number of cattle allowed to graze on wild horse HMAs far exceeds the number of wild horses permitted on these lands. Needless to say, the lack of accuracy and consistency in establishing and maintaining AML across all HMAs, and the apparent bias in favor of cattle over horses on lands that were specifically designated by law for wild horses, is frustrating to horse advocates and taxpayers who believe the BLM program would be better served by allowing horses to remain on the range and managed with contraception.

For the Calico gather, the BLM announced it was taking close to 3,000 wild horses off the range while taking no extraordinary measures to remove cattle to prevent "starvation".  Despite Interior Secretary Salazar's much heralded statement in September that the current program is "unsustainable" and that the Interior Department would replace large gathers with "aggressive" contraception programs, this first large gather of the year appears to be more of the same decades-old broken management program.

There are now 1922 horses that have been removed from the Calico HMA Complex and are in holding while an estimated 600 remain on the range. As of March 12, 2010, over 60 horses have died as a result of the stress of the gather and several mares have aborted their fetuses. The government is saddling the American public, again, with a predicted additional $1 million per year for the next 20 years increase in costs for holding the horses removed from the Calico range without any change to on-the-range management efforts. The agency has indicated that so few animals were gathered, it will not, despite Salazar's commitment to change, contracept or return ANY animals to the range. Worst of all, the BLM plans to gather an additional 10,000 wild horses on various HMAs this year and any that are not adopted will also be placed in six new federal holding facilities in the U.S. – at taxpayers expense.

This management is unsustainable and in direct contradiction to the commitment the agency made to change.

2. Wouldn't the animals starve if left on the range?

Not necessarily.  This is the justification BLM often makes to convince the public that gathers are necessary, but the vast majority of the horses gathered at the Calico complex appear in good condition. Of the more than 60 horses who have died over the duration of this gather, many were older animals whose health was compromised prior to the gather, including a number of older pregnant mares. In fact, of the1922 in holding now, very few require veterinary care and most are in excellent condition with shiny, thick coats. 

3. If the BLM waits until starvation begins to occur, isn't that too late?

Yes. That is not what we are recommending.  However, if the BLM gathered the horses, found them in robust condition (as the majority of the animals gathered from the Calico complex are), treated them with contraceptives and returned them to the range, the agency could then monitor and maintain the herd. Then, if in the coming years, conditions on the range begin to deteriorate, the agency could then provide the horses with supplemental food and water rather than conduct expensive gathers that would simply  increase the economic drain on the agency's wild horse management budget. Feeding on the range, as a short term response to this economic debacle, is a far more sensible and humane management wild horse approach compared to removing perfectly healthy horses from the range and caring for them in new holding facilities for the next 20 years.

4. If the horses are scattered over 250,000 acres, how could BLM feed them on the range if range conditions begin to deteriorate?

If the BLM can gather over 1,900 horses up over the 250,000 acre Calico complex and transport them to Fallon, if need be the agency can use the same resources to provide adequate food and water at gather sites on the range  The horses would quickly find the food, and once the range recovers, the supplemental feeding could and should be stopped.  Note that this proposal is only viable and appropriate if coupled with the Secretary's recommended "aggressive" contraception program. This would be a much less expensive and intrusive method of protecting horses and the range and would also significantly reduce off the range costs.

5. What's wrong with gathering the horses and removing them now, and then beginning a contraception program when the horses aren't so far over AML?

The BLM has been promising that it would begin to use contraception for over 12 years, and in that time, the agency has rounded up almost half of the horses on the range (from 46,000 to 29,000) and has initiated limited contraception programs. Once the perceived crisis is over, the BLM may simply move to the next HMA, citing another crisis,  and never begin a prophylactic program for professional "on the range" management. The numbers in holding and the extreme expense just keep growing as BLM receives more and more funding while stating that it will start a new program "next time."  This is exactly what the agency has said about the recent Calico gather. The BLM received almost double its previous budget this year to move the wild horse management program in a new direction, but instead of using the budget increase to fix its broken program, the agency plans to place another 9,000 horses in off-the-range holding facilities and increase the agency's financial burden for at least another  20 years.

In addition, because the agency has refused to contracept and return animals to the range, it has saddled the agency and the taxpayer with a certain and predictable population explosion again in another 4 years.  This could potentially result in the addition of yet another 9,000 animals into additional holding facilities which would require another substantial, multi-million dollar budget increase. Clearly, such a scenario is not sustainable or consistent with Salazar's own plan.

6. Are the Calico horses being well cared for?

Yes. The holding facilities at Fallon are brand new and state of the art. The horses have access to appropriate feed, water and sufficient space to exercise. The paddocks are fenced with at least 6 feet of metal piping that no horse is likely to break through. Feed and water stations are designed so that dominant horses cannot deny access to lower stationed horses. The animals are separated by sex and are in the process of being separated by age and likely disposition. We are concerned that this may negatively impact a successful reintroduction to the range, which we continue to press for. However, the facility staff appears professional and experienced. The loading chutes are designed for minimizing stress and injury, and the chute is padded and as humane as possible.

While this is an excellent facility, its estimated multimillion dollar price would also seem to indicate that the BLM has no plans to decrease roundups and spend its appropriations on range management any time in the near future.

7. If adopted or moved to a preserve in the east, won't the horses suffer from a severe change in diet that they will have difficulty adjusting to?

The BLM has a program to slowly, over the next two months, move the horses from a diet that mimics the forage available on the Calico range to a standard alfalfa diet that is the most common feed available throughout the United States. This is not because it is necessarily the optimum diet for the horses but because the BLM is trying to minimize the stress of a transition to a different feed by easing the horses to one readily available for potential adopters.  It will then provide adopters with diet information so they can then transition to a feed that is appropriate and accessible in their area.

8. Are BLM's gelding procedures humane?

The BLM has protocols for gelding that include anesthesia and that move the horse quickly from the procedure back to holding. A licensed, experienced equine veterinarian will perform all procedures. The procedures appear to be in conformance with best practices accepted by the veterinary profession for performing this procedure.

However, The HSUS is hopeful that no stallions will be gelded if they have any chance of being released back to the range.  There is no scientific evidence that gelding is effective as a birth control measure in the wild as, without universal gelding, mares will continue to become pregnant. In addition, because wild horse herds are socially complex, significant research is needed to ensure that the release of gelded horses will not have an adverse impact on wild horse behavior. No such research exists.

9. Didn't the BLM drive colts to death during the gather by running them so hard their hooves sloughed?

Yes.  This apparently happened to two colts. Tests on one animal indicate he was suffering from other, preexisting ailments that may have contributed to his weak hoof structure. However, if BLM is going to use these stressful mechanisms for gathering animals, it needs to develop procedures for ensuring, not maximum efficiency, but minimum injury and/or mortality during the gathers. Specific protocols should be set to ensure that no animal is over -driven to a point that any gather contributes to his/her death.

10. Didn't several horses die after the gather from being provided feed that was too rich?

Probably not. While the BLM's statement that "failure to adjust to feed"  in its gather reports suggested colic or other preventable digestive ailment to some, the BLM has documented the  composition of the feed provided and released  information stating that the provided feed was similar to the forage options available on the range. The animals who succumbed to the stress of the gather were largely older, pregnant mares who were in extremely poor condition. When asked if they would have survived if left on the range, the BLM states that the gather probably sped up death but did not change the outcome. Once animals (or humans) are in a compromised condition and eating, beginning the process of food reintroduction is difficult and must be closely monitored. It is difficult to identify which horses are succumbing to it and even more difficult to reverse the trend.   No horses died of colic.

View copy of 02/13/2010 Indian Lakes report submitted to the BLM (.pdf) and 03/06/2010 Indian Lakes Report #2 (.pdf).

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