The largest Bureau of Land Management (BLM) roundup in two years ended on Friday, December 2 in the Owyhee Complex in central Nevada with the permanent removal of an astounding 1,430 wild horses from their homes on the range. These horses were loaded onto massive semis and trucked to the BLM’s Palomino Valley holding facility near Reno. They join almost 46,000 other wild horses and burros stockpiled in BLM holding facilities. The fate of these once wild horses hangs in the balance amidst increasing pressure to kill or sell these national icons for slaughter.
Scapegoating Wild Horses for Sage Grouse Habitat Damage
During the Owyhee Complex roundup, the BLM’s scapegoating of wild horses for damage to sage grouse habitat – exposed and documented by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility – was on full display. The BLM used sage grouse as the “justification” for this massive roundup, even though the agency continues to authorize ten times more cattle than wild horses to graze the same public lands in this complex.
As wildlife biologist Eric Mulvar told the Associated Press, “Suggesting that wild horses are a problem for sage grouse, while ignoring the comparatively massive impacts of cattle and sheep, is a bit like suggesting that the captain of the Titanic should be worried about the ice cubes in his passengers’ cocktails rather than the icebergs floating in the North Atlantic.”
Limiting Public Access to View Roundups
This huge roundup was conducted in two parts. Public observation opportunities were provided for the Elko District portion of the roundup in the Owyhee and Rock Creek Herd Management Areas (HMAs).
However, when the roundup operation moved to the Winnemucca District’s Little Owyhee HMA, public observation was severely restricted. Almost 70 percent of the 863 horses rounded up in the Little Owyhee HMA were captured out of public view, and 7 out of 8 deaths attributed to the roundup occurred on days when the public was barred from viewing.
Deaths at Roundup Just the Beginning
The BLM is reporting that 18 wild horses lost their lives as a result of this roundup. Four of these deaths have been characterized as “acute” (injuries sustained due to the roundup or confinement in holding pens), while 14 horses were euthanized due to “Pre-existing” conditions, including blindness, according to the BLM.
Dozens more Owyhee Complex horses will die in the days, weeks and months following the roundup from traumatic injuries, such as broken necks and legs, illness, and metabolic conditions caused by failure to adjust to a life of confinement in feedlot pens.
A Small Step in the Right Direction
The only bright spot in this massive roundup is the release of 402 wild horses back to the range after capture. Approximately half of these horses were mares treated with the PZP 22 vaccine. AWHPC supports the BLM’s use of this birth control vaccine to control population growth without removals, and was pleased to witness the release of 402 wild horses back to the HMA.
We sadly note however, that each of the mares and stallions returned to the complex had been separated from their family bands, which never will be reunited since most, if not all, of their family members remain behind in captivity. In the future, we hope that the BLM will move toward a system for applying the PZP vaccine that keeps these social bands in tact, maintaining the close bonds between horses that characterize wild horse social organization.
We also believe that the permanent removal of such a large number of horses from this HMA was unjustified. The BLM’s “appropriate” management level (AML) for the Owyhee Complex is a maximum of 999 wild horses on more than 1 million acres of public land. This AML is not based on science, but rather on the preferential treatment of privately owned livestock over federally protected horses. In fact, the BLM allocates ten times more forage to livestock than wild horses in this complex.
The AMLs for wild horses in the Owyhee Complex should be raised to reflect a fairer resource allocation, and then these more sustainable population levels should be maintained through the use of humane birth control. This approach is far more cost-effective than the continued costly removal of wild horses from their homes on the range in this area.
Million Dollar Roundup
The roundup of 1,832 wild horses in the Owhyee Complex cost taxpayers at least $1.4 million and that excludes the costs of warehousing 1,430 wild horses – most of them for life – in holding pens and pastures.
The massive 2016 Owyhee roundup has proven once again that the BLM’s management approach, which the National Academy of Sciences characterized as “expensive and unproductive for the BLM and the public it serves,” must undergo radical change. While the release of some horses back to the HMA is a small step in the right direction, the agency must accelerate the use of humane birth control to manage wild horses in the wild. Massive wild horse removals like the one that occurred last month in the high desert of central Nevada are inhumane, unsustainable and must come to an end.