Problems mounting for wild-horse management


Reno, NV. - The spiraling nationwide problem of how to deal with thousands of unwanted horses isn't just about domesticated horses.

Reno, Nev. — The spiraling nationwide problem of how to deal with thousands of unwanted horses isn't just about domesticated horses.

It's about wild horses, too — as veterinarians, government officials, owners and horse advocates in 10 Western states know all too well.

One veterinarian is particularly well-versed on the subject because he's right in the middle of it — geographically and politically.

Boyd M. Spratling is a 33-year large-animal practitioner in Starr Valley, Nev., near Elko in the state's northeastern quadrant. Most of the managed wild herds are in his state.

He is the veterinary representative on the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, a nine-member panel that makes recommendations to the federal Bureau of Land Management, the government agency (under the Forest Service) that oversees the wild herds and the lands they roam.

Its members represent a balance of interests. Besides Spratling as the veterinary member, others represent horse and burro advocacy, research, natural-resources management, humane advocacy, wildlife management, livestock interests and the general public interest.

"We're an advisory group, but our recommendations usually carry some weight with the BLM," Spratling says.

According to the latest count available, there are about 33,000 wild horses and burros (29,500 horses and 3,500 burros) on lands the BLM manages under authority of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, a law (last amended in 2004) aimed at ensuring healthy herds and rangelands with sufficient year-round forage to support them.

Because herd sizes can double about every four years, the BLM removes — it uses the term "gathers" — thousands of feral horses from the Western public lands yearly to keep herd sizes in line with habitat capacity.

As a result, currently about 30,000 horses are being fed and cared for at some 200 BLM short-term (corral) and long-term (pasture) holding facilities. The agency tries to place as many as possible into private hands through adoptions, but those have been on the decline because of rising feed and fuel costs — and especially so since the economic downturn began to be widely felt. Adoptions fell from 5,701 in fiscal 2005 to 3,706 in fiscal 2008. That creates a huge financial problem, BLM officials say.

The agency says it can't maintain the system under its present budget, nor can it let the herds grow unchecked; that would mean environmental disaster — overgrazing of forage, malnutrition and starvation of animals, damage to native vegetation and wildlife habitats, more soil erosion and lower water quality.

Last year, holding costs topped $27 million, or about three-fourths of the BLM's $36.2 million total budget for the program. It seeks additional funding from Congress, but whether it will get the amount it says is needed to sustain the program is questionable.

DVM's role

How did Spratling get involved with the advisory panel? "I'm in Nevada, where we have more than half of the horses in long-term holding, and they knew I have experience so they call on me," he tells DVM Newsmagazine.

When the BLM determines there's a need to gather some of the free-roaming horses to cull the herds, Spratling often rides with agents in a helicopter to help them make the selections.

"Of 200 managed areas in the West, all but one or two have established approved management levels (a number considered optimum for the land to support). In Nevada, right now we have about 6,000 horses over that amount," Spratling says. "We're sitting at about about 18,000 on lands where there should be 12,000, certainly no more than 15,000. And in another four months there will be another foal crop, so the herds will jump another 20 percent or so."

To add to the problem, Spratling says he's seen a number of abandoned domesticated horses running with the feral horses — a sure reflection of the down economy that has caused owners in many states to relinquish or abandon horses because they can no longer afford to care for them.

"I've spotted many with saddle marks and shoes out here. Some will assimilate into the herds, but many won't, especially geldings. They won't fit in as well socially. And many will have a rough winter because they don't know how to get what they need."

Not everyone agrees that there are too many horses on the lands available. Some advocacy groups, in newsletters and blogs, claim that the BLM inflates the numbers, one even suggesting that horses have at times been purposely driven from one area to another to create the appearance of overcrowding. Some also question the costs the BLM reports, while others say there are federal lands taken away from horses and given over for cattle grazing.

The BLM takes issue with such assertions. "If anything, the agency undercounts the free-roaming horse and burro population," says Tom Gorey, BLM senior public affairs specialist in Washington. "We count only what we see, and that actually results in an undercount. Any allegation that our agency inflates the population figures is at worst disinformation or at best misinformation."

As for the claim that there are other lands available for the horses, Gorey says there is virtually no such land that can provide year-round forage for a suitable habitat.

"It's an irony that some of these (advocacy) groups blame grazing for all the problems," Spratling adds. "Getting rid of cows is not a solution. Horses can eat themselves out of house and home; they simply exceed in number what food is available."

Gorey points to an independent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report last year, titled "Effective Long-Term Options Needed to Manage Unadoptable Wild Horses," calling it an unbiased report that supports the BLM. That report, available on the GAO Web site, says the BLM has made "significant progress" toward setting and meeting the appropriate management levels of wild herds, and that it is committed to improving its direct-count method, which currently results in an undercount of the population."

The GAO points out that the 1971 law allows the option of humanely euthanizing animals that are unadoptable or to sell "without limitation" (meaning that slaughter is an option) horses older than 10 and those younger that have been passed over for adoption at least three times, based on a 2004 amendment. It recommends that the bureau should initiate discussions with Congress on addressing the BLM's noncompliance with these directives.

While humane euthanasia and selling without limitation for possible transport to slaughter are legal options, "there's no appetite for euthanasia or slaughter," says Spratling.

The advisory board on which he sits last met in Reno in November, approving 19 recommendations to the BLM, among them the following: that "as a last resort" sale-eligible animals not sold or adopted after 30 days be offered for sale without limitation or be humanely euthanized, that all emergency gathers have a veterinarian present and that animals showing signs of disease or stress that could make them susceptible to life-threatening illness when moved to a holding facility also be humanely euthanized.

Euthanasia is to be performed only by a veterinarian or under a DVM's supervision, following American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) guidelines and in compliance with state veterinary practice acts and laws.

The euthanasia measure had only one dissenting vote, from the wild-horse advocacy representative.

At that November meeting, the advisory board also heard from Mrs. T. Boone Pickens, wife of the Texas oilman, who said she is working with others to acquire enough land to provide permanent sanctuaries for free-roaming wild mustangs. Mrs. Pickens, in a telephone conversation with DVM Newsmagazine, said she is vehemently opposed to horse slaughter.

The BLM will consider the advisory board's recommendations, and perhaps Mrs. Pickens' offer, at its next meeting, Feb. 23 in Reno. It can accept, reject or modify the recommendations.

"We could use a many more like Mrs. Pickens," Spratling says.

"But realistically, unless we control the horse populations outside (holding areas) to keep those areas sustainable, and manage the numbers inside, we won't solve this problem. Good management ultimately is the key," he says.

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