By Phil Taylor, E&E
The Bureau of Land Management's top official in charge of managing wild horses and burros this week stepped down from her post.
Joan Guilfoyle, who became BLM's division chief for wild horses in August 2011, will be overseeing business and financial programs at BLM, an agency official said.
Mary D'Aversa, who has managed BLM's Phoenix district office since January 2013, will step in as acting wild horses chief. D'Aversa has worked at BLM for more than two decades and was previously manager of the Schell field office in Ely, Nev., where she handled wild horse issues. D'Aversa will be acting chief for at least four months while BLM seeks a permanent replacement.
The reasons for the personnel shuffle were not immediately clear.
Guilfoyle took over BLM's horse and burro program as it embarked on a major overhaul to increase the use of fertility drugs to reduce herd growth. The aim was to reduce the need to gather and store excess horses from public rangelands, which has driven a major increase in program costs.
At the time, BLM was storing more than 40,000 horses in short- and long-term corrals. Today, BLM is caring for and feeding nearly 48,000 wild horses in captivity, which is consuming more than half of its wild horse and burro budget.
BLM at the time had pledged to increase the use of fertility control, namely a drug known as PZP that makes mares temporarily infertile.
BLM treated about 1,000 mares with the PZP vaccine annually in 2011 and 2012, roughly double the rate of the past six years. But application of the drug has dropped sharply as BLM was confronted with tight budgets and litigation.
Fertility control treatments dropped to 509 in 2013 and 384 in 2014.
Guilfoyle in a summer 2013 memo warned that the program was on the brink of fiscal collapse and recommended that all roundups be suspended until the agency could sell or adopt thousands of mustangs being held in federal corrals. To cut costs, the agency should consider sterilizing or euthanizing wild horses "as an act of mercy if animals decline to near-death condition as a result of declining water and forage resources," Guilfoyle wrote at the time (Greenwire, Feb. 24, 2014).
A 1971 law requires BLM to manage wild horses in a "thriving natural ecological balance" on the public lands. But horse advocates and ranchers define "balance" very differently, and BLM often finds itself in the middle of legal and political minefields.
Under Guilfoyle's tenure, BLM faced intense pressure from Western states and ranchers to remove excess wild horses, which are seen as competitors with domestic livestock for forage and a potential threat to endangered species. But wild horse advocates also sue BLM when it tries to round up herds.
As of one year ago, BLM estimated there were 49,209 wild horses and burros on public lands, up from 40,605 a year earlier. The agency said the range can only sustain 26,684 of the animals.
Herd numbers are expected to jump higher in 2015 due in part to fewer roundups last year.
Guilfoyle, who rode horses as a child, is a longtime federal employee with experience at BLM, the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service.