BLM Board Member Describes Wild Horse, Burro Management (AAEP 2012)

BLM Board Member Describes Wild Horse, Burro Management (AAEP 2012)

Legislators enacted the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act to protect, manage, and control these animals to maintain herd populations at levels consistent with the land's capacity to support them.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett, The Horse Managing Editor

For decades, animal welfare organizations have targeted the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wild horse and burro project. In 2011 the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) assigned a task force to look into the care of horses and burros during capture and housing and to propose guidelines. At the 2012 AAEP Convention, held Dec. 1-5 in Anaheim, Calif., Boyd Spratling, DVM, Co-Chair of the National BLM Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, described the program, the perpetual challenges it faces in light of environmental and financial constraints, and how the BLM has been addressing welfare concerns related to roundups, holding facilities, and long-term housing in addition to humane conditions on the range.

Spratling remarked that 230,000 horses have been adopted into private ownership since the program's inception. Legislators enacted the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act to protect, manage, and control these animals to maintain herd populations at levels consistent with the land's capacity to support them. "It is critical to maintain an ecological balance," he said. "When this isn't being accomplished, the objective is to remove the excess numbers from the rangelands.

"The BLM personnel have expert experience," Spratling continued, explaining that they are aware of the need for safe facilities and handling techniques, along with healthy ranges to support healthy horses. One controversial issue they face is the need for a proper end-of-life policy, and he explained that much of the public resists the idea of euthanasia. Due to these societal pressures, unadoptable horses are held in long-term holding facilities.

Currently, 37,500 wild horses reside on rangelands, which exceeds the national Appropriate Management Level (AML) for Herd Management Areas (HMA) of 26,600 animals. Spratling explained that natural reproduction increases herd sizes by 20-25% each year and there are limited strategies for removing excess animals.

More than 60% of the BLM's annual $78 million budget goes to maintaining horses and burros in holding facilities. Each horse or burro held in a facility can cost $11,000 to maintain over his lifetime. "The cost of holding has increased dramatically so there is a need to change direction," Spratling said.

He described the feasibility of immune-contraception via the porcine zona pellucida (PZP) vaccine; however, only 800-1,000 mares per year can be immunized, and the vaccine's effect only lasts about two years. In addition, it costs $900 to capture each mare plus $410 per vaccine dose.

"Drought and wildfires compound the agency's challenges," Spratling said, "by diminishing forage and water on the rangelands." Other species, such as antelope, mule deer, and sage grouse, use the federal lands as well. Spratling cautioned that grouse might be listed as threatened or endangered in the future; this could trump all other Wild Horse and Burro Act enforcements, including wild horse and burro protections.

Other challenges BLM authorities must consider include the interface between rangelands and cities, which causes wild herds to spill into human-populated areas.

In summary, Spratling emphasized, "There must be active and aggressive management consistent with what the rangelands will accommodate." This is under consistent review as habitat and herd conditions change.

About the Author

Nancy S. Loving, DVM

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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