Monday, May 11, 2020

By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block

America’s wild horses and burros are in crisis and unless the Bureau of Land Management revamps its program to manage these animals in a non-lethal and sustainable manner, as Congress has directed it to do, the gridlock surrounding the program will continue to prevent progress. Recently, BLM released a report to Congress on how it plans to revamp the program, and while the agency took a step in the right direction by committing to some increased use of fertility control tools, the report fell short of the changes truly needed to create a humane wild horse and burro program. 

BLM’s report to Congress does include a nod to increasing the agency’s use of fertility control tools, but it seems to indicate that the agency will only use these tools once populations are near the agency’s target levels—a goal that has to be reached through removals and one that BLM has never been able to reach. While the report indicates that BLM plans to administer at least 3,000 fertility control vaccines to mares annually,  and commits $21 million to fertility control in coming years, there is no guarantee that this commitment would be implemented on a large scale and used on a continuing basis to manage wild horses now, let alone in perpetuity. With over 88,000 wild horses and burros on BLM land, a plan for 3,000 treatments is a drop in the bucket to manage wild horse populations. Additionally, there is no commitment from the agency to use widely accepted, humane and  reversible  fertility control tools. 

Instead, the plan appears to focus on large-scale gathers, as BLM always has done, instead of the implementation of safe, proven and humane fertility control methods, as the agency should. It’s these innovative methods that a coalition of diverse stakeholders, including the Humane Society of the United States and the Humane Society Legislative Fund, have championed again and again in discussions with the agency and in public statements. 

We appreciate the agency’s desire to correct course on its management of wild horses and burros on our western public lands after decades of pressure. But the agency needs to prioritize implementation of fertility control on a large scale to reduce its reliance on taking horses off the range and putting them into government holding facilities.  They simply cannot continue their stated path of using fertility control only when enough horses have been removed for the numbers to be near desired levels. Stabilization and slowing population growth is the path to long-term solutions—that means using fertility control now, and making it the central focus of the wild horse and burro program. This approach would break the cycle of rounding up and warehousing horses as the primary means of lowering population.

The comprehensive proposal our coalition has put forward has gained traction with lawmakers across the political spectrum including those who just a few years ago were arguing for lethal control. It relies on safe, humane and proven on-range fertility control methods at great scale, and importantly, it takes surgical sterilization off the table. Instead, it would advance scaled-up, on-range fertility control initiatives.

BLM continues to call for more research into sterilization of mares. While it has shifted some of its focus onto chemical sterilization of mares, which is less invasive and potentially has less complications than surgical sterilization of mares, it still does not take off the table money going toward surgical sterilization research—an approach we and other stakeholders unequivocally oppose. These procedures are extremely invasive and present a host of potential complications for the animal, including hemorrhage, shock, tissue damage and even death. Here too, we believe the agency could make better use of its limited resources by focusing on safe and humane fertility control tools already available for use. The fact of the matter is that currently there are no sterilization techniques for wild mares that are proven safe and humane, and as such, they should not be used to manage these animals. 

This report simply doesn’t cut it, and we will be bringing hard pressure on BLM and other stakeholders to support aggressive implementation of humane contraception strategies. We’re going to press Congress to do the same, because its oversight and reinforcement of intelligent strategies is essential to overcoming the agency’s historical tendencies to look for the quick fix of round-ups.

In addition, we must continue our efforts to secure passage of the SAFE Act (H.R. 961/S. 2006), to prevent the horse slaughter industry from reestablishing itself in the United States and ban the export of American horses for slaughter elsewhere. Public health considerations alone make it plain that horses don’t belong on the menu. But its passage would also foreclose on the chance that America’s wild horses would end up in the slaughter pipeline, as they often have in the past.

Congressional leaders have made it clear that they want to see the challenge of managing wild horse and burro populations addressed humanely, effectively and comprehensively, to ensure the health of their herds while satisfying political and other demands for their management. To do that, we’re going to have to confront and remove any remaining obstructions and barriers to the expanded use of contraception. We will do that and more in our efforts to save America’s wild horses and burros and to ensure their future on our western ranges.

Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.