By Thomas Ragan, Santa Fe Reporter
Radio tracking collars, more studies devoted to genetic diversity through fecal analysis and longer lasting fertility-control vaccines are among the solutions to help rein in the overpopulation of wild horses on public lands in the Southwest.
The Bureau of Land Management tells SFR that a few universities and the US Geological Survey could soon be working with BLM to produce innovative approaches to slowing down the excessive reproduction of wild horses from New Mexico to Nevada.
The urgency of putting a halt to the breeding comes at a time when adoptions of the horses are at an all-time low. It also comes on the heels of a US Fish and Wildlife Service decision last week that ruled that the horses were not an endangered species—a status that a pair of wild horse advocacy groups were hoping to obtain in court.
“We’re finalizing the agreements right now, and we should be ready to go in about six weeks,” says Jason Lutterman, a spokesman for the BLM's Reno division of the Wild Horse and Burro Program.
In all, 21 projects are in the works, and they run the gamut from hands-on neutering and spaying to land management. The total cost is expected to reach $11 million, and the proactive approach would occur over the next five years, Lutterman says.
One of the more important scientific undertakings will be analyzing the poop from horses to determine their genetic makeup. With such knowledge, scientists will be able to conclude what sorts of effects neutering and spaying would have on certain populations and whether such procedures would hinder their sustainability.
In all, there are 179 herd management areas in the Southwest, and the biggest problem, simply put, is that there are no natural predators to keep their populations in check. Subsequently, the horses are capable of doubling in size every four years, which only serves to devastate their range, Lutterman says.
Making matters worse, efforts to secure private adoption are floundering. At the beginning of the millennium, the BLM had no problem adopting out 8,000 horses per year. Now that number is 2,500, if the BLM is lucky. Conversely, the lifetime cost of keeping just one horse alive is $50,000, which can all add up.
Mike Tupper, a BLM deputy assistant director for resources and planning, says that the high costs of caring for the animal off the range in the absence of adopting them has left the BLM with no other recourse but to start fixing the problem at its source: reproduction.
“Wild horses and burros are an important part of our nation’s heritage,” Tupper says in a press release. “That’s why we are seeking innovative solutions to help us achieve a humane and cost-effective way to sustainably manage these animals on healthy rangelands for the enjoyment of generations to come.”
At the time of the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, there were only 25,000 wild horses and burros on the range. Since then, the number of animals on public lands has more than doubled, reaching 58,150 as of March 2015, according to Lutterman.
In the last year alone, the population has risen about 18 percent. In addition to the nearly 60,000 horses and burros on the range, an additional 47,000 horses and burros that were previously removed from the public lands are being cared for in off-range pastures and corrals.
Deniz Bolbol, spokeswoman for the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, says the recent developments were made secretly without any public input and that by focusing on sterilization, the BLM will usher in the extinction of the horses.
Bolbol claims that the BLM is working with universities to help boost its credibility that it's serious in wanting to solve the problem of overpopulation, but the reality is that "everyone is operating behind an iron curtain," referring to the panels that have been set up with the universities and the federal agencies (BLM and USGS). "We don't even know what criteria they're going by. They're going down an ominous path."