Eyewitness Report on Third Meeting of the National Academy of Sciences Wild Horse and Burro Program Review Committee

On March 19 - 20, 2012, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Wild Horse and Burro Review Committee met in Irvine, CA to continue its scientific evaluation of the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM's) program.  While most of the committee's discussions occurred in closed session, on Monday, March 19 from 3:00 - 6:30 p.m., the committee opened its meeting to the public.

During this time, three official speakers, and approximately a dozen members of the public, addressed the 16-member review panel.

Dr. Michael Wolfe of Utah State University discussed his research on mountain lion predation and presented interesting evidence that mountain lions can and do prey on wild horse foals and can be a factor in population management. Specific conditions, such as terrain,  seasonal availability of other prey species (outside of wild horse foaling season), and predator eradication programs are determining factors on the impact predators have on horse populations. Dr. Wolfe presented an example of mountain lion predation significantly affecting foal survival in the Pryor Mountains until hunters killed four mountain lions in the area (see slide below).

Dr. Wolfe  highlighted so-called "societal" concerns (i.e. hunters) about increased mountain lion populations reducing big horn sheep numbers, which big game hunters want to keep plentiful so they can hunt and kill them as trophy animals.

Dr. Allen Rutberg of Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine spoke to the panel about the BLM's consistent failure to apply science to management strategies and to follow up once management approaches -- such as sex ratio skewing -- are implemented. The result is that the BLM has no idea whether various strategies will work before they are implemented program wide, and what their affects are once implemented. A glaring example is the BLM's claim that it still does not know whether PZP is effective in controlling wild horse populations, despite the fact that PZP has been used by the agency since the 1990's.

Dr. J.E. de Steiguer, a natural resource economist, professor at the University of Arizona and author of Wild Horses of the West: History and Politics of America's Mustangs, highlighted the strength of public support for wild horses and burros, both today and historically, and the role that societal concerns should play in the development of wild horse and burro management policy.

Dr. de Steiguer noted that societal concerns are not reflected in the BLM's wild horse and burro Appropriate Management Levels (AMLs) or in resource allocations the agency makes within Herd Management Areas (HMAs). He also highlighted the fact that the BLM is not following federal law or its own handbook in establishing AMLs and making roundup/removal decisions.

Other experts addressing the panel during the public comment period included:

Dr. Anne Perkins, an anthrozoologist and director of the Human-Animal Bond program at Carroll College in Montana. Dr. Perkins talked about her experience living with and studying three wild horse herds. Dr. Perkins told the panel that wild horses must be managed as a wildlife species, and that natural selection -- not breeding for desirable characteristics like color or conformation -- should be allowed to play its role in maintaining the health of wild horse herds. Dr. Chad Hansen, an ecologist with the John Muir Project and a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the BLM's Twin Peaks roundup, spoke to the panel about the need to understand the impact of predator-eradication programs on wild horse populations. He also addressed the BLM's lack of transparency and the difficulty he has faced in getting the agency to provide documents on which Environmental Assessments (EAs) for roundup and removal decisions are based. He relayed one instant in which he finally obtained documents related to a wild horse roundup EA, and found that while the EA concluded that wild horses were primarily responsible for riparian damage on the range, the source documents pointed to livestock as the primary culprit.

Ginger Kathrens, noted wildlife filmmaker and volunteer Executive Director of The Cloud Foundation, told the panel about her experiences with wild horses, highlighted the fact that wild horses are a native species, and spoke of the way wild horses would be managed if their native species status was recognized.

AWHPC was also onsite urging the committee to make recommendations that will encourage the BLM to manage wild horses and burros as wildlife species in a manner that protects their wild, free-roaming behavior, which is protected by federal law. AWHPC also urged the committee to look at the way in which the BLM is allocating resources within the HMAs and to devise a process for better incorporating public concerns into management decisions. For more information about the NAS review panel and its study scope, please click here.                          

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