THURSDAY, OCTOBER 19, 2017
I sit as the Wildlife Management Chair on the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board. My responsibility is to represent the interests of wildlife on 30 Million acres of public land in the American West as they are affected by Wild Horses and Burros. That is an area the size of nearly 15 Yellowstone National Parks. I’m honored to have been nominated to sit in the unpaid volunteer position and I take it very seriously. It is a tremendous responsibility in a truly tragic situation.
Simply put, the Wild Horse and Burro Program is a complete wreck. It is a toxic, ugly, finger-pointing, emotional, and controversial subject that for decades our society, politicians, the BLM, and congress have failed to enact a sustainable management plan to avoid a large and looming ecological disaster. Right now there are over 3X the target population of Wild Horses and Burros nationwide and in some areas they are causing severe ecological damage. In other areas, they aren’t. History and common sense tells us that when a population exceeds its carrying capacity in a confined area with limited resources, there is a population crash. When those population crashes occur, it affects all the wildlife in an area along with vegetation, soil, water quality, etc… Much worse than the population crash are the long-term effects, especially in desert environments, where native plant communities can take decades or centuries to grow back. In arid deserts of the Great Basin where most wild horses roam, disturbed native plant communities are often replaced by fire-prone annual invasives, especially cheat grass, that can dominate a landscape. An estimated 50 million acres of the American West has already been converted into an invasive cheatgrass monoculture and as a society, I believe we should direct our land managers to put ecosystem health as #1 top priority. Some of the ecological degradation could be permanent and may never recover in our lifetime. The very worse case scenario for Wild Horses and Burros, your public land that they depend on, and all the wildlife that require that habitat, is to take a no-management approach when it comes to wild horses and to allow nature to take its course.
Today I supported the recommendations brought by the Advisory Board that allows for a lethal management of the wild horses and burros. Already, a mere two hours after the meeting, there have been multiple organizations directing social media hate mail towards me and my pages. If you’re one of those people who came to this page wanting to hate me, I understand. Please take the time to read the rest of this post and I would love to hear your thoughts about how to create a sustainable path forward. Unfortunately, I don’t see one and I have studied this issue extensively. This is a hard pill for me to swallow because for the past several years of my life I’ve tried to find a solution to the Wild Horse & Burro dilemma that got every single horse adopted. I’ve adopted numerous mustangs personally, have helped make multiple films promoting adoptions, and have raised over $100k for wild horse adoption organizations. I’ll try to explain how this situation has spun so out of control and why I made the recommendations that I did.
The Ancestors of Wild Horses evolved in North America and went extinct in the Great Pleistocene Extinction around 10,000 years ago. Fortunately, they migrated across the Bering Strait prior to extinction where they were eventually domesticated, breeds developed, artificial selection occurred, and horses were ultimately brought back to the Americas during European Expansion. Horses escaped, were set free to breed, and multiplied in a “Wild” or “Feral” state for hundreds of years. As the West was settled, these Wild Horses, often called mustangs, were rounded up to the point that Velma Johnson, AKA Wild Horse Annie, pushed for legislation to protect the remaining Wild Horses. This culminated in the Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 that protected the 15,000 or so Horses and Burros remaining in the American West. Today Wild Horses and burros are managed on about 30 million acres of land in about 179 Herd Management Areas (HMAs).
Under protection, the Wild Horses and Burro populations grew about 15-20% annually and threatened overgrazing on the rangelands that they shared with wildlife and in some cases livestock. So the BLM, the government agency in charge of managing the Wild Horses, created Appropriate Management Levels (AMLs) which is the number of horses that each Herd Management Area (HMA) can supposedly sustain in a thriving ecological balance with wildlife and in some areas livestock. Currently, the nationwide AML is 27,000.
While the Appropriate Management Level is 27,000, the current population is estimated to be between 80,000-85,000 Wild Horses and Burros (including 2017 foals) which is over 3X the target population. For reference, when I first became involved in the WH&B issue there were less than 50,000 in the wild. The BLM is supposed to gather excess horses to prevent overgrazing but they can’t because they don’t have a place to put them because they’ve already gathered and are boarding 45,000 Wild Horses and Burros in feed lot-style holding pens and leased pasture. The BLM is spending $50 Million annually (2/3 of its Wild Horse and Burro budget) to feed these horses in holding. Each individual horse that goes into the holding pen process is estimated to cost taxpayers $50,000 per individual. For the price of all the horses being kept in holding pens, you could send 90,000 students to an in state 4-year college. To me, that level of government spending is completely unacceptable. That is why I made the recommendation to: “Phase out long-term holding over the next three years and apply that budget to on-range management and adoptions.” This recommendation passed the board 6-1. To phase out Long Term holding, the public would have the opportunity to adopt the horses and acquire the ownership and expenses involved.
Unfortunately, the horse market is saturated, many rescue facilities are full to the brim, and adoption has fallen over the past decade. If the public didn’t adopt them all, it’s possible some non-reproducing herds could be established on public lands. Most likely, some horses would have to be euthanized. This is not a crazy thought. People euthanize millions of dogs and cats every year, Bison are culled in Yellowstone to prevent overgrazing, and Elk are culled in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s not a fun topic to discuss so I’ll move on...
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