Organizations Clash Over Wild Horse and Burro Population Control

September 30, 2016
Jenina Pellegren

The Humane Society of the United States and the Bureau of Land Management have been at odds for the better part of 20 years over population control methods of burros and wild horses.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have been at odds for the better part of 20 years over population control methods of burros and wild horses.

Since 1971, as required by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, BLM has been tasked with managing, protecting, and controlling wild horses and burros (WH&B). Under this act, the BLM is authorized to remove wild horses and burros from the range in order to, “sustain the health and productivity of the public lands.”

The situation between the two organizations came to a head most recently, when the WH&B advisory board recommended euthanizing over 45,000 animals currently housed in off-range facilities.

In a statement via their website, BLM said, “The National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board is an independent panel comprised of members of the public that make recommendations to the Bureau of Land Management regarding its management of wild horses and burros. The BLM is committed to having healthy horses on healthy rangelands. We will continue to care for and seek good homes for animals that have been removed from the range. Currently, there are more than 67,000 wild horses and burros on public rangelands, and the BLM is caring for nearly 50,000 animals in off-range corrals and pastures.”

Through a press release via their own website, HSUS responded by saying that they are pleased with this latest news, and they maintain, “The status quo is simply not good enough. The Wild Horse and Burro Program is a sinking ship and it is incumbent that the agency make real changes to ensure that the wild horse and burro program stays afloat.”

To date, the BLM has used round-up, removal, and adoption as their primary management strategy for population control. HSUS, through a statement given to American Veterinarian by Gillian Lyons, Wild Horse and Burro Program Manager, Wildlife Protection Department said, “BLM spent $49 million maintaining these horses in off-range facilities, which constituted 46% of the entire budget of the agency’s wild horse and burro program. Such a large expenditure has restricted the agency’s ability to properly manage wild horses on the range.” The recommendation from HSUS is to implement fertility control programs throughout rangelands that are most affected by over-population.

However, Justin Lutterman, representative for BLM in email correspondence with American Veterinarian said, “BLM uses a birth-control vaccine called porcine zona pellucida (PZP) to control the growth of some herds where the animals are more approachable. However, PZP is only effective for about one year, which makes it difficult to apply every year to animals in larger herds that are often spread over hundreds of thousands of acres.”

In a study of PZP researchers observed, “a single annual booster inoculation was capable of maintaining contraception.” Researchers are currently working on a “one-inoculation” form of the vaccine. The goal is to develop PZP into lactide-glycolide microspheres, which causes a delayed release of the vaccine. It has the potential to become a real solution if it can be administered remotely via dart. Additionally, the vaccine, even after prolonged treatment, has no debilitating side effects.

Currently, their primary tool is the Adoption Program, which places animals in private care. The program also allows for wild horses over 10 years of age, and younger horses that have been passed over for adoption at least three times, to be eligible for sale. The BLM has sold over 5,000 horses and burros. They note that the program does not sell or send any wild horses or burros to slaughter, but, in a 2015 investigative report, buyer Tom Davis, a Colorado rancher and livestock hauler, admitted that most of the horses he purchased from BLM went to slaughter. Through that investigation, BLM stated, “operating contrary to implemented legislation by limiting sales and not destroying horses has contributed to an unmanageable number of horses.”

As populations continue to grow, putting increased environmental and financial demands on the organization, the BLM continues to investigate more effective and humane methods for population management. Through research projects being conducted by university scientists and professionals from the US Geological Survey, new technologies and methods are in development.