ST. GEORGE — Wild horses, considered beautiful and noble animals by many, embody the pioneering spirit of the West, with a lineage on the North American mainland dating to Spanish explorers in 1519.
According to the Bureau of Land Management, wild horses and burros have virtually no natural predators and their herd sizes can double about every four years.
The BLM estimates that more than 50,000 wild horses and burros occupy 42 million acres of federally managed rangeland in 10 Western states. Utah’s population is estimated at 3,672 horses and 449 burros.
Over the years, the pressing question has become: What is the best way to ensure herds are maintained in an ecological balance with livestock, wildlife and habitat?
As a result, the BLM, as part of its management of public rangeland, removes thousands of animals each year off of federal land to control herd sizes.
Under the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act, the BLM was mandated to protect and control the animal population levels prescribed by established Resource Management Plans.
But once the animals have been removed from the open range, what next?
The answers include a limited number of short-term federally funded holding facilities and even fewer privately-owned nature preserves to allow wild horses to roam free.
The BLM Utah state office will host its second annual Wild Horse and Burro Festival and Adoption event, Friday and Saturday at the Washington County Regional Park, 5500 W. 700 South, in Hurricane.
For decades, land management agencies have endured an increasingly difficult challenge of how to control the growth in wild horse and burro populations across the West.
During the past 50 years, the BLM has adopted out more than 230,000 horses and burros that were removed from the range to protect animal and land health. However, adoption rates have been at record low levels.
In the early 2000s, the BLM adopted out nearly 8,000 horses each year. During the last few years, annual adoption totals have been closer to 2,500 animals per year.
Wild horse and burro advocates say adoption is fraught with danger.
“I think we are reaching a very serious tipping point where the public lands, ranchers and their political allies are making a big push to slaughter as many horses that are in holding pens and horses they consider to be excess on the range,” said Suzanne Roy, director for the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign.
To illustrate the situation, Roy said, the BLM is currently conducting a roundup on 3.1 million acres in Wyoming. The roundup began in early October and is scheduled to last until February 2022. According to the latest data, it will be the largest in United States history, Roy said. The goal, she added, is to remove more than 3,500 wild horses from the open range.
“These are healthy horses and in fantastic condition,” Roy said. “The land is also healthy, and there is no compelling reason to remove them from the range.”
Roy added that while there are places where wild horses are in poor condition, she thinks the argument that they are struggling on the range is “greatly over-exaggerated.”
Roy points to the Conger Herd Management Area in Northern Utah as one that is struggling to have a permanent water source.
Some of the animals this year were considered in overall poor condition, and the roundup may have been warranted, but Roy said that BLM does not manage, “they just call in the helicopters to round them up. It’s a very inhumane way of dealing with the situation.”
Without exception, wild horse and burro advocates say they believe the BLM’s “adoption incentive program” that pays $1,000 – per horse up to four per adoption event – is a benefit to people who adopt an animal. But, Roy said, this program is flawed and open for abuse.
When the new owners get the title to their adopted horses, some have been reported to ship them to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico before being sent to the handful of countries that eat horse meat including Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Japan, China, Germany, Mexico, Indonesia, Tonga and Iceland.
“The cash incentive is a huge problem right now,” Roy said. “We are seeing groups of individuals and families who adopt four horses each, pocket the incentive money … and eventually the animals are showing up at slaughter auctions. This is a big, widespread problem.”
By all accounts, dealing with the west’s wild horse population is a costly endeavor.
In recent years, Congress appropriated more than $70 million annually to the Wild Horse and Burro Program. Of the money spent, the average holding costs accounted for $49 million, or 65.7%. Roundups and removals cost $1.8 million, or 2.4%. Adoption events cost $6.3 million, or 8.4% of the annual budget.
In 2015, 16,330 wild horses and burros were in BLM holding facilities throughout the U.S; 30,614 wild horses and burros were in long-term holding pastures; and 534 were in eco-sanctuaries. According to wild horse advocates, the numbers are now substantially higher.
“Utah handles its wild horse herds better than most other Western states,” Roy said. “But, with that said, right now we are in the midst of an accelerated push to remove wild horses from the land. There are thousands of horses being rounded up across the West by the BLM. My organization believes it’s an extreme response to the management of the horses.”
Roy said the preservation campaign has been working in concert with the Utah BLM state office to establish humane wild horse management practices especially away from helicopter roundups that put the animals under intense stress and can cause fatal injuries to the horses.
The focus of the campaign, Roy added, continues to center on convincing the agency to shift its priorities away from roundups to consistent, logical and scientific solutions to managing wild horses and burros in their natural habitat.
“We also feel that the claims of population numbers are greatly exaggerated,” Roy said. “The BLM fails to expend resources on humane ways to manage the horses on the land.”
The number for a given herd is assigned with what is known as an Appropriate Management Level, which comprises a range of low to maximum levels that allow for population growth over a four to five-year period without causing rangeland damage.
In theory, this assigned level number represents the point at which horse and burro herd populations are consistent with the land’s capacity to support them.
What many don’t understand, Jason Lutterman, spokesperson for BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program, said in a previous interview, is that it has become such an onerous problem that his agency is strained under the weight of what has become a political hot potato.
“We do have to manage for wild horse population growth of between 15-20% annually, which means they can double their population size in four years,” Lutterman said. “Up until now, we’ve removed horses from overpopulated herds and try to find good homes from them through our adoption program.
“So we are faced with an exponentially growing population on the range with really nowhere to put the excess horses, but into our off-range facilities, which is not a sustainable action for the program,” Lutterman added.
Several research studies have been conducted in several Western states in the past seven years.
“We are focused on getting some research into place so that we can develop new population growth suppression tools. Some of the things we are looking at are longer-lasting fertility controls,” Lutterman said. “Right now we have a vaccine that doesn’t last long enough, approximately one year. If you think about it, there are approximately 67,000 wild horses on BLM rangeland. So what happens is that you are applying the vaccine to thousands and thousands of horses each year and that is not a viable solution.”
In 2015, the BLM allocated $11 million on research projects aimed at curbing wild horse and burro population growth.
The money funded more than 20 projects aimed at developing new tools for managing healthy horses and burros on healthy rangelands, including effective ways to slow the population growth rate of the animals and reduce the need to remove animals from the public lands.
BLM hopes its research will create a return on its investment.
“What we are looking at developing (is) something that is a little longer-lasting, maybe four or five years, and we are also looking at ways we can spay or neuter wild horses and return them to the range. This would be a component to a non-breeding portion of the herd,” Lutterman said.
But Roy said not much has come from the research programs.
“They were testing a one-shot birth control vaccine, but it’s still under study at BLM’s holding facility at Carson City, Nevada,” Roy added. “But, I’ve heard the results are not very promising. There really aren’t any new methods to manage the wild horse population.”
Officials from BLM could not be reached for comment on this.
Currently, the BLM administers Porcine Zona Pellucida Vaccine (PZP) as its method of birth control on wild horse populations.
However, this method has come under fire for not being reliable.
Research conducted by the Science and Conservation Center suggests that even though the BLM has applied PZP to wild mares in Wyoming, the vaccine must be administered to a large number of mares to reach a 90% effectiveness rate.
Leading research has indicated that it takes eight years of application to successfully reduce wild horse population growth.
PZP’s success is “unpredictable” because of a number of factors including the age of the animal, individual animal response and mandatory follow-up boosters.
Scientists working on these projects will pursue the development of humane on-range management techniques, including BLM’s priority to develop longer-lasting fertility-control vaccines, as well as methods for spaying and neutering wild horses.
In its 2013 report to the BLM, the National Academy of Sciences found that no highly effective, easily delivered and affordable fertility-control methods were currently available for use on wild horses and burros. The most promising vaccine, PZP, is limited in the duration of its effectiveness — one to two years.
PZP does not immediately begin reducing herd sizes or foaling rates. To reach full effectiveness and begin curbing populations, PZP must be administered repeatedly or annually. Leading research has indicated that it takes eight years of application to successfully reduce wild horse population growth.
Last week the United States Senate Appropriations Committee earmarked $11 million to fund the BLM to develop a fertility control program rather than using roundups to manage the wild horse and burro populations on federal land.
Horse and burro advocates have applauded this initiative as it diverts away from using methods reportedly known to cause injuries.
The current BLM plan is to remove 90,000 horses and burros by 2025. The agency has 45 days to return to the Senate with a vaccine initiative plan.
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