A Deeper Dive into a Flawed Plan to Run 50,000 Wild Horses and Burros Off of Our Federal Lands Over the Next Three Years

Rifts in the animal protection movement are unpleasant but inevitable, given that ours is a movement grounded on ideas and populated by millions of people and thousands of organizations. Like any major social cause or political party, there are factions, sects, personality clashes, strategic differences, and other aspects of human nature that hinder perfect harmony. Amidst all of this roiling diversity, I’ve always taken comfort that our disunion is not reserved for our cause alone. The humorist Will Rogers famously remarked, regarding his political allegiances, that “I’m not a member of any organized political party…. I’m a Democrat.”

In pursuing better action for animals, there are divisions on incrementalism verses abolitionism relating to farm animal issues and animal testing and research. There are stylistic debates over confrontation and conciliation. And there are disputes over feral cats, pit bulls, deer, and a wide range of other breeds, species, families, and categories of exploitation.

To be sure, there have long been fault lines in the battle over wild horses and burros, who are living symbols of the American West and creatures deserving our mercy and agency. There are advocates who consider the horses a North American native species whose individuals have roamed the western part of the continent for thousands of years. These advocates generally oppose round-ups and removals, believing that this kind of human intervention erodes the size and genetic vitality of distinct herds with their own claims to our public lands. Other horse and burro advocates are more supportive of limited round-ups as a way to address political pressures related to competition with livestock (who number in the millions on our public lands and have a vocal ranching constituency, in an inversion of reality, caviling about “too many horses”). There have also been disputes over fertility control, but these days, most groups recognize that contraception is a humane intervention, far superior to the stress and costs associated with round-ups and removals.

Divisions over federal policy on wild horses and burros have come into sharp focus in the last two weeks after The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) announced a collaboration with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and pro-horse slaughter groups such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and the American Farm Bureau Federation to convince the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to add $50 million to the Bureau of Land Management’s budget for management of the equids.  Specifically, the groups have called for the round-up of 15,000 – 20,000 horses and burros annually for as many as ten years and for placement of these horses in government-funded holding facilities, perhaps in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Utah (on top of the 50,000 horses already in holding facilities).  They’ve called for a step-up of “growth suppression programs,” specifically targeting the individual horses and burros remaining after gathers in order to make sterilization or fertility control more practical.

While some groups favor their plan, many grassroots wild horse and burro advocacy groups oppose it, as does Animal Wellness Action

Every reputable animal protection group – including all animal groups on both sides of this debate – opposes the slaughter of wild horses, and also pushed for federal legislation to stop the slaughter of any domesticated or wild horses or burros. And I have no doubt that the program staffers at the HSUS and the ASPCA advocating for this plan have a deep concern for horses and burros. They deserve our respect for their passion for animals. In this case, however, I think they’ve made the wrong judgment and negotiated a bad deal that puts horses and burros at risk. And the absence of a perfect plan in the alternative doesn’t make their plan any more acceptable.

I’ve been immersed in the wild horse and burro debate for years and have worked with players on all sides of it and been on the ground to see the federal government’s management actions and a number of contraception programs in the field. It’s a very challenging problem, and I’ve come to see many angles of it. Nevertheless, I was very surprised that the organizations announced this particular plan. It’s not only the wrong plan at the wrong time, but the political pathway they’ve chosen to try to effect reform is fraught with risks for horses and burros. Here’s why.

    • These groups are distracting our community of organizations from the larger battle to end the slaughter of American horses across North America for human consumption overseas. The Democrats took the House in the mid-term elections, and generally speaking, it’s been a core Democratic position to oppose horse slaughter. With Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva, and Appropriations Committee leaders Nita Lowey, Betty McCollum, and Sanford Bishop, we have a dream team of anti-slaughter advocates in key positions in the House. We are in the best position in years to fend off pro-slaughter maneuvers in the Interior and Agriculture spending bills and to advance the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act, which would ban any horse slaughter operations. By advancing a divisive and controversial plan now, HSUS and the ASPCA — which have made an alliance with the leading proponents of horse slaughter (the NCBA and the Farm Bureau) — have split the equine community when our unity is required to secure a transformational policy gain on the broader issue of horse slaughter.
    • This agreement has no adequate safeguards and is open-ended, vague, and far too malleable. The Fiscal Year 2020 Appropriations language proposed by these groups requires the removal of 15,000-20,000 horses in a single year, but does not guarantee any funds for contraception or require a specific number of horses to be treated. If mass round-ups occur, it creates conditions for accelerated reproduction and survivorship. That’s why it’s considered a best practice to treat 80 percent of remaining mares with a contraceptive vaccine, If fertility control strategies are not applied, herds may rebound in short order and, in a few years, the population may bounce back to pre-gather levels. There’s no evidence that this plan contains the necessary resources and resolve to conduct a contraception plan on the scale required to achieve the stated objectives.
    • There’s not enough money in the plan to allow for its goals to be met. The groups are calling for an extra $50 million for BLM. But if the agency is rounding for 15,000 – 20,000 horses per year, and feeding them and growing the physical size of the holding facilities, that will cannibalize the new monies, just as the growth of the captive herds at holding facilities is already consuming upwards of 70 percent of the BLM’s current wild horse and burro budget. This wouldn’t leave funding to implement contraception. If it called for appropriations of another $100 million, it might get them there, but at this point, that kind of sum is not even on the table.
    • The appropriations process is among the least transparent of ways to address a complicated, multi-dimensional plan like the one proposed. There is no singular lawmaker heading the appropriations process, and the final language of whatever comes out of that process gets folded into a multi-billion-dollar, must-pass spending bill. The vast majority of lawmakers will favor or oppose the bill based on a much larger set of policy and spending priorities, and our allies may have little power to take off barnacles that got attached during the bill’s back-room formulations.
    • BLM and the Interior Department have a history of slow-walking and even fighting contraception. BLM has treated contraception as a “do-gooder” idea that cannot be broadly applied in the field. A small number of their field staff have been enthusiastic endorsers of contraception for a few horse and burro herds and participated on contraception programs largely driven by volunteers and animal protection groups. But many key agency personnel have warned that most herds cannot be contracepted because of the unsuitability of the terrain, the behavioral wariness of the horses in many herds, and for other reasons. This plan asks the BLM to transform its culture on this issue, and that’s a very abrupt transition to ask this agency to make. Inserting vague language on contraception – which has already been done for years – is not going to change the BLM overnight.
  • Swelling the captive population of horses is going to create future pressure to kill captive horses. The NCBA and the Farm Bureau have not signaled any change in their broader philosophy that it’s fine to kill horses for human consumption. They’ve long treated this as a matter of convenience and economic opportunity. When the composition of the Congress changes – and that’s what elections guarantee – and there is a stronger, pro-slaughter contingent in Congress, they may very well use the presence of 100,000 horses in holding facilities and talk about how it’s eating up $200 million a year, and argue that we must reduce the population through euthanasia or slaughter. And this will make it more difficult to maintain anti-slaughter language in subsequent years. You don’t need to think seven moves ahead to avoid walking into this trap.

The best and most rationale step forward is to use this year’s appropriations cycle to require BLM expand its contraception programs and fund that expansion. If BLM demonstrates an ability to apply the fertility control strategy in a far larger number of Herd Management Areas, then it’s time to talk about a broader plan for managing horses and burros given the presence of a more trusted and reliable government agency.

For now, though, the wild horse and burro community is right to balk at a plan to gather and remove 45,000 – 60,000 wild horses and burros in the next three years. Advocates should speak up and call their federal lawmakers (202-225-3121, urging them to oppose this dangerous plan and focus funding on the contraception as the centerpiece of any future, more comprehensive management plan.

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