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Wild horse growing population threatens range

Hearing highlights growing problem with surging populations of wild horses and burros and impact it can have on local plant and livestock species.

This week, the House subcommittee on federal lands held an oversight hearing on challenges and potential solutions for the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) management of wild horses and burros on federal land.

BLM faces a costly challenge in managing the exploding population of wild horses and burros in the West. More than 45,000 wild horses live in BLM holding facilities, costing taxpayers more than $49 million per year, which is roughly two thirds of BLM’s total program budget. BLM projects that the cost of caring for one horse in a corral facility is nearly $50,000 over the life of each animal, adding up to more than $1 billion based on the current number of animals in holding.

The growing population problem also poses severe threats to rangeland health, wildlife habitat, livestock ranching, agricultural development and the wild horses and burros themselves.

“The very animals and resources that the BLM is charged with management of are being negatively impacted, and in some cases, irreversible damage to our western rangelands is resulting from mismanagement,” said Dr. JJ Goicoechea, state veterinarian and deputy administrator of the Nevada department of agriculture. “How much longer can we turn a blind eye to the real issue? It is time to push the reset button and build a program, for the good of everyone and everything involved.”

Steve Ellis, BLM’s deputy director for operations, said BLM is taking steps toward longer-term solutions, like increasing horses and burro adoption and requesting legislative authority to allow the transfer of horses to other federal, state and local agencies. However, he emphasized that the options are very limited; BLM’s hands are tied by appropriations language and the risk of litigation by animal rights groups.

Subcommittee chairman Tom McClintock (R., Cal.) added, “BLM is also plagued with lawsuits by animal rights organizations that seem to criticize virtually every action BLM takes yet come up with no reasonable solutions themselves. While I rarely defend the BLM, the agency is severely limited in the actions it can take."

“We’ve got to be creative in this in some particular way,” committee chairman Rob Bishop (R., Utah) said, noting that taking the horses off the land and putting them in holding facilities is "not a great life for the horses," and leaving them on the range may destroy wildlife habitat, which is "not a great option either. ... There’s got to be some other option.”

Witness Callie Hendrickson, executive director of White River & Douglas Creek Conservation Districts and chair of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) Federal Lands Issue Advisory Committee, called for commonsense and ecologically sound management solutions.

AFBF urged Congress to act quickly to keep fast-growing herds of feral horses and burros from further damaging the environment of the western U.S. At current rates, their already excessive numbers will double in a mere four years, according to AFBF.

Even though law requires it, BLM has neither the money nor the ability to fairly balance wild horse and burro populations so that other wildlife, livestock and vegetation can thrive. Ranchers face rapidly shrinking grazing allotments while continuing to pay for the allotments they once had lest they lose them – if and when the grazing lands recover from severe overgrazing by feral horses and burros.

“Populations of wild horses and burros have been allowed to grow at a rate that, in many places, exceeds six times their authorized management level,” Hendrickson told the subcommittee. “This situation has not only led to widespread degradation of western rangelands but has also had devastating effects on the health of the animals themselves, who often face dehydration, starvation and death. ... The need for congressional intervention cannot be overstated.”

The local economies across the West rely on natural resource-based industries and multiple use of public lands. These land use areas also contain more than 1 million acres of sage grouse habitat.

“With the negative impact on rangeland health of overpopulation of wild horses, one can assume that sage grouse habitat is also being negatively impacted,” Goicoechea said. “Those of us who make a living caring for animals, whether our own livestock or client animals, have a moral obligation to manage populations in balance with natural resources, to prevent damage to the resources and, above all, to provide for the overall health of the animals. Starvation and dehydration are inexcusable and inappropriate methods of population control.”

While wild horse gathers and the administration of fertility drugs to curb reproductive growth have been used for nearly 20 years in an attempt to bring populations of wild horses within appropriate levels, these programs have suffered from severe flaws.

“The process of rounding up horses and releasing them back into the management areas, sometimes after fertility drugs have been administered and other times just because the number of horses determined to be rounded up was met, has trained horses to hide in Pinion Juniper woodlands or escape outside the boundaries of the management areas,” Goicoechea noted. “We must give the agency tasked with management of the horses and burros all the tools in the toolbox. Even in the best scenario, fertility drugs must be re-administered every two or three years — an impossible and impractical solution to such a massive problem. Funds must be made available for more permanent surgical sterilization, spay and neuter.”

While wild horses and burros are part of the western landscape on public and federal lands, efforts must be taken to manage these herds at appropriate management levels.

“By the time we wait even four or five more years, the wild horse population will double again if current policies remain in place,” said Goicoechea. “If we remove other multiple uses to make room for more horses, we will see impacts to wildlife, sensitive plant species and rural economies, not just domestic livestock,” he added.

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