By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson
America’s wild horses and burros have long been engulfed in a political quagmire, and their place on our western rangelands has been hotly contested for more than half a century. But a comprehensive, science-based management proposal promises to break the stalemate that has vexed stakeholders within and outside of government for decades, and spare tens of thousands of wild horses and burros from ongoing threats, including mass slaughter. The Senate Appropriations Committee recently committed an impressive $35 million to that plan, following the House of Representatives’ $6 million allocation to the same goal back in May.
This ambitious new plan has been advanced by the Humane Society of the United States and the Humane Society Legislative Fund, along with other humane advocates, ranching interests and other parties. For the past several years, there has been tremendous pressure to authorize the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to kill thousands of wild horses and burros as a “management” technique. That’s why the current proposal is striking. In forging it, we and other parties set aside our differences to secure the long-term future of wild horses and burros, as countless members of Congress pressed us to do. The proposal takes lethal control, including the slaughter of horses and burros, off the table along with surgical sterilization techniques, since none have been proven safe and humane, while acknowledging the need to continue limited removal of animals from the range in the short-term, to bring burgeoning populations in certain herd management areas under control.
It also places a much stronger burden upon the BLM to advance scaled-up, on-range fertility control initiatives and provides for strategic relocation of removed horses and burros to adoptive homes or long-term holding pastures. These pastures are expansive and replicate the animals’ natural environment as much as possible.
The proposal, properly funded by Congress and immediately implemented by the BLM, would eliminate any need for large-scale removals in six years. The BLM can begin to phase out holding facilities, its overall costs will go down, and a stable population of horses and burros can thrive on the range via fertility control management.
But every proposal, even the most balanced one, has its detractors. There's a meeting of the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board taking place in Washington, D.C., this week with representatives from multiple interest groups and the public. In the run-up to the meeting, we’ve heard a few outside voices speaking out against the proposal (one of those inexplicably on the attack is a former colleague who directly championed such an approach with then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke two years ago). Some have insisted that fertility control alone will work on large populations without limited removals -- a notion that has been flatly rejected by scientists who have pioneered the field.
Those attacking the proposal also gloss over the point that in areas that are difficult to access, the only way to deliver fertility control to wild horses and burros is to round them up and administer it. It’s easy enough to oppose round-ups, but it’s disingenuous to do so in light of what we know about the science and practice of fertility control. Moreover, these few critics offer no solution of their own, and, however well-meaning their criticisms, their mischaracterization of the proposal at this time is matched by a disregard of the political landscape, the reality on the ground and the fact that each year we do nothing, the closer we are to seeing mass killings of these animals.
Members of Congress from both parties have expressed rising frustration over stakeholders’ refusal to collaborate on a long-term solution, and the hourglass is running out. Standing pat isn’t a strategy; it’s posturing and it will allow the removal of thousands of horses and burros to continue each year, without end.
We have a national obligation to wild horses and burros on our rangelands, one codified in the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. Sadly, the lack of a comprehensive approach and continued reluctance on the BLM’s part to implement safe and proven fertility control has put lives at risk. By choosing to implement the proposal we and other informed advocates have advanced, and by ensuring that Congress will stay involved to guarantee that the BLM implements it correctly, we‘ll position ourselves to make good on our nation’s promise to provide these wild inhabitants of the American west a chance to survive and flourish in perpetuity.
Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.