BLM Horses: What's Their Future?

What are the problems with managing BLM horses, and what solutions are agencies and advocates presenting?

In October 2008 wild horse protection advocates, scientists, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Deputy Director Henri Bisson gathered at the Wild Horse and Burro Summit in Las Vegas, Nev., to strategize a solution to the BLM's excess horse problem. Sponsored by the South Dakota-based International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros (ISPMB), the meeting was wild horse advocates' most recent attempt to persuade Bisson to abandon euthanasia as a herd management option.

"The situation is beyond control," said ISPMB President Karen Sussman. "Euthanasia is not an option, so we have to get people to work together."

"Euthanasia is not an option, so we have to get people to work together."--Karen Sussman, ISPMB President

The BLM made international headlines on June 30, 2008, when Bisson announced the agency would consider exercising its long-held right to use euthanasia as a way to cope with increasing wild horse herds and a shrinking budget.

According to BLM Senior Public Affairs Specialist Tom Gorey, wild horse herds can double every four years. Currently there are 33,000 wild horses and burros on the range. Meanwhile, 22,000 horses age 5 years and older are turned out on pasture at long-term holding facilities, where they will live out their lives. Another 8,000 potentially adoptable horses are held in short-term corral facilities until they are placed in private homes.

In 2007 the BLM spent $22 million of its $39 million budget on holding facilities. Costs for 2009 are projected to account for $26 million of the agency's total $37-million budget.

"Three-quarters of our budget goes for holding facilities," Gorey says. "We contract with private ranchers to maintain the horses," most of which are kept on pasture. The rest are held in BLM-owned or contracted corrals.

The BLM was given responsibility for managing wild horse and burro herds on land it manages in 1971, when Congress passed The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. At the time, wild horses and burros had access to 53.5 million acres of public lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming.

Since then, changes in land ownership, congressional actions, and public land use decisions diminished ranges open to horses in those states to 29 million acres, according to BLM documents. To prevent horses from overgrazing shrinking rangelands, the BLM removes wild horses from the ranges every four years. But at costs of up to $640 to gather and remove a horse and up to $1,500 to get a horse through to a successful adoption, gathering, maintaining, and adopting horses is leaving the agency strapped, says Gorey.

Euthanizing horses that are aged, infirm, or unfit for adoption would reduce the agency's long-term holding costs, Gorey says. According to BLM documents, it would cost the agency as much as $500 per head for veterinarian-supervised euthanasia and carcass disposal.

Since July 9, 2008, the BLM has been operating under a request from Congress to refrain from making any decisions in connection with the euthanasia option.

Wild horse protection advocates were outraged that the BLM would consider euthanizing its excess horses. But according to Sussman, many of them disagree about other key herd management issues, including contraception and the way the BLM administers its adoption program.

The Adoption Option

The BLM has long had high hopes that its Adopt a Wild Horse or Burro program could place enough wild horses in private homes to help prevent herd sizes from getting out of hand. After gathers take place, the agency removes mares and stallions ages 5 and younger for potential adoption placement. Anyone 18 years of age and older who has no prior animal cruelty convictions and can demonstrate the ability to provide appropriate feed and care in a U.S.-based home may adopt a mare or stallion for a cost of $125, or a mare and foal for $250. This can occur at scheduled BLM adoption events, BLM facilities, or online.

In the past 37 years, more than 235,000 horses have been adopted by private owners through the BLM. But the adoption program's potential to place the horses removed from the range to control herd sizes began to wane in 2007, when food and fuel cost increases created a soft market for adoptable horses. That year, 4,772 wild horses were adopted into private homes, 400 fewer than were adopted in 2006, and 929 fewer than were adopted in 2005. (At press time BLM had recorded 3,706 wild horse adoptions in 2008.) To rekindle interest, the BLM offers some horses for adoption for as little as $25 a head.

Although wild horse advocates prefer adoption over euthanasia for herd control, program critics claim the combination of bargain prices and inexperienced adopters puts horses at risk.

When four malnourished BLM-adopted horses seized by animal welfare authorities arrived at the Bluebonnet Equine Rescue in Texas, rescue co-founder and equine behaviorist Jennifer Williams, PhD, learned firsthand how BLM horses can suffer when adoptions go awry.

According to Williams, the horses had been handed off to a succession of owners who were unable to successfully train them. Along the way one horse became lame. The other three were deemed unmanageable by their owners. Following their rehabilitation at Bluebonnet, the lame horse was adopted by an owner willing to give it a pasture home for life. Another was successfully trained for pleasure riding purposes. The remaining two were transferred to a sanctuary established to accommodate previously adopted and now privately owned BLM horses.

"The problem with the BLM adoption program is that people are attracted to the low cost of these horses," she says. "But when they get them home, most people don't know what to do with them."

Veteran Colorado horse trainer Joe Andrews thinks many BLM horses fail to thrive in domestic situations because adoptive owners' expectations are unrealistic.

"They're looking at dollar signs and quick training for easy resale," he says.

When training proves time-consuming and costly, owners are likely to sell the horses off to others willing to take on the challenge. But by the time many mustangs reach experienced trainers, they have been mishandled long enough to make retraining difficult or even impossible.

"I consider my success rate with mustangs to be 50%," says Andrews, who is listed on BLM's trainer referral roster.

The Texas-based Mustang Heritage Foundation is working to better those odds. In 2007 the Foundation established its Trainer Incentive Program. The project allows qualified trainers to earn up to $750 for each mustang they receive from the BLM, train, and place in a qualified adoptive home. In order to participate trainers must make formal application, demonstrate suitable training experience, and prove a qualified person is committed to adopting the horse. Once accepted, trainers are required to start one horse. Trainers who successfully meet program requirements--including placing the horse in a quality home--can acquire and train up to four mustangs at a time. Two hundred BLM horses have been successfully placed in adoptive homes since the incentive program began.

"We've learned that a mustang trained even just to the halter level will be adopted," said Mustang Heritage Foundation Executive Director Patti Colbert. "We believe by working with trainers we can get an even larger number of BLM horses adopted."

In fact, organizations like Colbert's could play an even larger future role in BLM horse placement. According to Gorey, the agency is pondering expanded partnerships with private-sector organizations to promote the agency's adoption program.

It is also important to note the BLM does thousands of post-adoption compliance checks each year.

PZP's Potential

Wildlife fertility specialist Jay F. Kirkpatrick, PhD, believes contraception is the only long-term solution to the BLM's excess horse dilemma.

"People can talk about adoptions and even euthanasia, but those only treat symptoms of the problem," says Kirkpatrick, director of The Science and Conservation Center in Billings, Mont. "The problem is reproduction, and porcine zona pellucida (PZP) vaccination is the solution."

Injected as a liquid or pellet form in fertile mares, PZP acts as a foreign protein against which treated mares produce antibodies that attach to the mare's sperm receptors on the ovum and block fertilization. Currently, a simultaneous liquid and pellet PZP vaccination protocol renders most treated mares infertile for 22 months, but researchers are well on the way to developing a version with longer lasting results. The per-head cost for treating mares with PZP is $21 for the initial liquid vaccination plus about $230 for the booster pellets (the pellets are what make the contraceptive last for 22 months--the injection alone provides shorter-term contraception and requires darting, which is not practical for many of the herds out West).

The National Park Service has used PZP to successfully control the size of herds it manages on North Carolina's Outer Banks and at the Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland for years, Kirkpatrick says.

However, the vaccine has been in limited use on BLM herds, even though Kirkpatrick says its per-head cost could save the agency millions by reducing the number of foals born annually and decreasing the need for the roundups.

He credits the BLM's roundup-focused institutional culture with the agency's reluctance to embrace PZP vaccination.

"They're rounding up mares anyway, so not treating them with PZP makes no sense," he says.

The BLM has expanded its use of PZP. Since it started a new research initiative in 2004, the BLM has treated over 2,000 mares on 52 of the 199 Herd Management Areas (HMAs) under BLM management. In addition, BLM entered into a 2006 Memorandum of Understanding with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to further study the effects of PZP. Through this collaborative agreement the HSUS and BLM treated 132 wild horses enrolled in this project in two HMAs in Colorado and Utah during gathers in October and December 2008.

Despite its potential for limiting foal production and reducing the need to warehouse or euthanize horses, not all wild horse advocates embrace the PZP option. Some argue that healthy herds are threatened when the vaccine's efficacy diminishes and treated mares produce high-risk foals out of season.

According to Kirkpatrick, data indicates that out of season foals are no more at risk than those born in season.

Sussman would rather see the BLM cease gathers altogether on the grounds that gathers irreparably fracture strong social and family relationships within wild horse bands.

"Let's say that a whole community is told that there are too many people in every house and that some people from every house needed to be removed," she says. "In some houses there may be little kids who have no parents; some would be single-parent families. That's what happens in wild horse gathers."

Gathers also leave herds bereft of experienced leadership, she said.

"Pulling older, wiser stallions out of the herd and returning younger ones to the range is like putting a fifth grader in charge of a first grader," says Sussman. "Breeding takes place more frequently than it would if older stallions were left on the range." She'd rather put nature in charge of herd control.

Kirkpatrick rejects the notion. "That would be like putting dogs in a kennel with limited food and water and leaving them alone," he says. "It would only work if these horses were free to roam 400 miles to get to food and water. But these horses are not really free-roaming. Their ranges are fenced."

Take-Home Message

While the debates rage, the BLM continues to operate under the request of Congress to refrain from acting on euthanasia or any other wild horse management decisions. The BLM is in the process of responding to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit of the agency's fiscal and managerial performance (see article#13123 at TheHorse.com and the GAO summary at www.BLM.gov). Whatever the result, pressure to resolve the recent national credit crisis and the change in White House leadership will undoubtedly postpone any congressional action on BLM wild horse and burro issues well into 2009.

For more information on the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse and Burro Program, with dates and locations of adoptions throughout the country, visit www.wildhorseandburro.blm.gov or call 202/208-3801.

About the Author

Pat Raia

Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.

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