Wild-horse roundup necessary, but not enough, officials say

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National Report - While the Bureau of Land Management is going to increase attempts at using birth control to keep wild-horse populations in check this year, an internal report reveals that much more is needed to make the program sustainable.

National Report — While the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is going to increase attempts at using birth control to keep wild-horse populations in check this year, an internal report reveals that much more is needed to make the program sustainable.

In fact, the Department of the Interior's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) recommended the bureau look outside to ensure the best science is being used to guide the program.

A new plan: While it's not a perfect solution, the BLM is hoping non-hormonal contraceptives will provide additional means of population control for wild horses and burros.

The National Academy of Sciences has been charged with making an independent technical review of the Wild Horse and Burro Program to ensure BLM is using the best science available in managing populations on Western rangelands, but the bureau says the two-year study begins in March and isn't slated for completion until the spring of 2013.

In the meantime, OIG says there is an urgent need for more research and testing of effective population control methods, and to reduce the need for short- and long-term holding facilities.

BLM manages 180 herd management areas spanning 31.9 million acres in 10 western states. The goal of the program is to protect wild horse and burro populations in their natural state, but also to protect the ecological health of the rangelands on which they live, according to the report. Horse populations on the herd-management areas (HMA) as of February 2009 were 36,940 (33,102 wild horses and 3,838 burros), which is more than 10,000 animals above the 26,578 maximum set by BLM.

When populations reach the maximum the rangeland can support, gathers are required, the report states. As a result, some injuries and deaths are "unavoidable," OIG says. In 2010, horses that died or were euthanized on herd management areas were less than 1 percent.

As of October 2010, BLM was holding about 11,400 horses and burros in short-term facilities and 26,400 in long-term facilities. Horses in the program are not sold or sent to slaughter by BLM.

Despite BLM's efforts, however, wild horse populations double every four years, and adoption rates are declining. From 2004 to 2010, wild horse adoption rates dropped from 6,644 per year to 2,960. At that same time, populations at holding facilities increased from 22,000 in 2004 to 37,800 in 2010.

"The current path is not sustainable for the animals, the environment or the taxpayer," BLM says.

The agency spent $65 million on the wild horse program in 2010—including $37 million for caring for horses in short- and long-term holding facilities, $7.7 million on gathers and $6.8 million on adopting horses out to the public.

"Our inspection confirmed that wild horse and burro gathers are necessary because BLM lands cannot sustain the growing population of wild horses and burros. The growing population of these animals must be addressed to achieve and maintain a thriving ecological balance of the authorized uses of the land, thus gathers are necessary and justified actions," writes Mary Kendall, acting inspector general of the Department of the Interior's Office of the Inspector General, in a December 2010 review on the wild horse program.

The review also noted that there are several ways BLM is working to control wild-horse populations and that there is no evidence that BLM or its contractors have treated wild horses inappropriately or inhumanely during gathers or at holding facilities.

"The program remains controversial and without pursuing much-needed changes, the program's cost will continue to increase," says Bob Abbey, director of the Bureau of Land Management. "This is where I am drawing the line. Every dollar allocated to BLM's wild-horse program is coming out of other important BLM-managed programs. We cannot continue increasing money for the wild-horse program while pursuing the age-old strategy of just gathering, removing and holding horses."

BLM started mapping out a new strategy for the wild-horse program back in October 2009 and now is in the second phase of that process, says Abbey, which includes analyzing public input on the program.

The BLM will issue a "proposed new direction" for its Wild Horse and Burro Program sometime in early 2011, taking into account more than 9,000 e-mails and letters on the development of a new, more sustainable strategy.

BLM also has been working with Saving America's Mustangs Foundation, headed by Madeleine Pickens, for more than two years. Pickens has proposed creating a wild-horse sanctuary where she will place horses gathered from Western public rangelands, but BLM says it can't move forward with the plan without a written proposal and proof of cost savings for taxpayers, among other things.

"BLM is doing its best to perform a very difficult job," OIG writes in its report, adding that current projections show wild horse and burro populations growing from 38,365 in 2010 to 238,000 by 2020 without further population control efforts.

Tom Gorey, a BLM spokesman, says that prior to this year, non-hormonal birth control was a rarely used method on wild horses, with only about 500 given doses each year.

Eleven wild-horse gathers are planned for 2011 for the primary purpose of applying fertility control methods. These "catch, treat and release" gathers will test a fertility control vaccine called porcine zona pellucida (PZP) on 1,000 mares. The vaccine, pioneered as a birth control method for wildlife in the 1980s, essentially creates an antibody to stop sperm from attaching to the ova.

"If these fertility-control treatments prove successful, we can lengthen the time between some gathers, saving taxpayers dollars by holding down gather and holding costs," Abbey says.

But PZP, a non-hormonal contraceptive, and gender-ratio adjustments have had little impact on populations to date, according to OIG's report.

"Neither of these measures currently provide an effective means to limiting the population of wild horses and burros at a level that can be sustained on public lands," the report states.

BLM began testing PZP on a small scale in 2004, but would need to use the drug on 70 to 90 percent of its mares to effectively reduce population growth, OIG says. BLM has plans to increase its PZP use in 2010, but not to those levels, according to Gorey.

"In addition, the vaccine becomes progressively less effective after the first year it is administered," OIG says. "Due to the large size of herds and vastness of the HMAs, the effectiveness of fertility control using PZP is currently limited."

PZP is not commercially available, and is being used by BLM in cooperation with the Humane Society of the United States and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The drug has been tested on a small herd of wild horses at a Maryland national park, and decreased pregnancy rates were recorded.

"We're not convinced it's a miracle drug, but we'd like to see how well it will work," Gorey says.

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