BLM won't euthanize wild horses it cannot adopt — Kornze

By Scott Streater, E&E News

September 15, 2016

Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze told a congressional panel yesterday that the agency has no plans to follow the recommendation of an advisory panel that has called on BLM to euthanize potentially thousands of wild horses it cannot sell or adopt.

Kornze, addressing the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands, said that "frankly, we were surprised by the recommendation" by BLM's National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board on Friday urging the agency to sell the roughly 46,000 wild horses it holds in off-range corrals — and euthanize those it cannot sell.

"I read about it in the papers like you did," Kornze said of the advisory board recommendation.

He said BLM was committed to finding other alternatives, such as long-term fertility control drugs and better adoption programs, to reduce the nearly 70,000 wild horses and burros that exceed the number that federal rangelands can sustain by nearly 50,000 animals.

The Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 requires BLM to remove excess wild horses and burros to protect native wildlife and other rangeland resources.

"We have a huge challenge, and it's something [where] we've been trying to put together a comprehensive program to slow the fertility of the horses, and to make sure that we're getting more horses into good homes," he said.

"We have a massive budgetary problem in that we have roughly 50,000 horses that have already been taken off the range that are sitting in long-term holding pastures and corrals."

Kornze said it would cost $1 billion to care for all those wild horses and burros over their life. "Then we have the additional roughly 70,000 horses that are out on the range," he added, noting the agency does not have the resources to deal with them.

"We need more tools," he said. "We could use the help of this committee. We could use the help of states to get after research, to get after more programs, to get more horses into homes. But also to figure out how to properly manage these animals."

The ongoing wild horse and burro problem was not scheduled to come up at yesterday's hearing, which focused on the "Utah Public Lands Initiative Act" (see related story).

But Reps. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) grilled Kornze about the issue and the ongoing debate over how best to address it, especially in the wake of the BLM advisory board recommendation.

Polis called the proposal to sell or slaughter wild horses "completely unacceptable," and Kornze agreed.

Noting the search for solutions, Lummis questioned Kornze on the BLM's decision last week to cancel a research project that would have tested surgical sterilization methods for wild mares.

BLM announced Friday it was canceling the research partnership with Oregon State University to study the "safety and effectiveness" of the fertility control methods in the face of several federal lawsuits from wild horse advocacy groups that challenged the research as "inhumane."

"My question is why?" Lummis said. "What's it going to take for BLM to manage the wild horse populations?"

Specifically, Lummis wanted to know if the decision to cancel the research was made "because you got sued."

Without directly saying so, Kornze implied the litigation was the primary reason. Specifically, some of the wild horse advocacy groups wanted to observe the surgical fertility control tests to ensure the horses were being treated humanely.

BLM had conducted an environmental assessment that authorized the research projects under an animal care protocol approved by the university. Study plans included looking into a procedure to remove both ovaries from wild mares.

"We were working with Oregon State University and a number of litigants to try to find a way to have a reasonable observation opportunity for the litigants, and we simply couldn't come to an agreement for all parties," Kornze said.

But he added that the cancellation of the projects "doesn't mean we're stepping back from this type of research."

"We will continue moving forward looking at long-term fertility control, looking at spay and neuter," he added. "We have to go in that direction."