RENO, Nev. (AP) — A scathing independent scientific review
of wild horse roundups in the West concludes the U.S. government should likely
instead let nature cull the herds.
A 14-member panel assembled by the National Science
Academy’s National Research Council, at the request of the Bureau of Land
Management, concluded BLM’s removal of nearly 100,000 horses from the Western
range over the past decade probably is having the opposite effect of its
intention to ease ecological damage and reduce overpopulated herds.
By stepping in prematurely when food and water supplies
remain adequate, and with most natural predators long gone, the land management
agency is producing artificial conditions that ultimately serve to perpetuate
population growth, the committee said in a 451-page report recommending more
emphasis on a variety of methods of fertility control to keep horse numbers in
The research panel sympathized with BLM’s struggle to find
middle ground between horse advocates who say the federally protected animals
have a right to be on the range and livestock ranchers who see them as unwelcome
competitors for forage.
It noted there’s “little if any public support” for allowing
harm to come to either the horses or the rangeland itself.
“However, the current removal strategy used by BLM
perpetuates the overpopulation problem by maintaining the number of animals at
levels below the carrying capacity of the land, protecting the rangeland and the
horse population in the short term but resulting in continually high population
growth and exacerbating the long-term problem,” the report said.
“As a result, the number of animals processed through
holding facilities is probably increased by management,” the panel said, adding
that “business-as-usual” will be expensive and unproductive. “Addressing the
problem immediately with a long-term view is probably a more affordable option
than continuing to remove horses to long-term holding facilities.”
The report is sure to stir controversy among various
interest groups that have promoted everything from a moratorium on all horse
roundups to legalizing the sale of gathered mustangs for slaughter.
The conflict has raged for decades, but has intensified in
recent years for cash-strapped federal land managers with skyrocketing bills for
food and corals and no room for incoming animals.
The number of animals at holding facilities surpassed the
estimated number on the range in 10 Western states earlier this year for the
first time since President Richard Nixon signed the Free-Roaming Horses and
Burros Act of 1971.
Although the scientific panel questioned the accuracy of the
numbers, a recent BLM report shows 49,369 wild horses and 1,348 wild burros were
being housed in government corrals and pastures. The report said 31,500 wild
horses and 5,800 burros remained in the wild — about half of them in Nevada.
“No one really wants to see more horses in long-term holding
just from an economic viewpoint,” said Guy Palmer, a pathologist from Washington
State University who chaired the research committee. “Secondly, this is not the
vision that is associated with what the public wants to see with the horses on
these wild lands.”
Compounding the problem is a horse census system and
rangeland assessment practice rife with inconsistencies and poor documentation,
the committee said, noting a previous NRC committee charged with the same task
reached the same conclusion 30 years ago.
“Recordkeeping needs to be substantially improved,” the
Panel members who began the review in June 2011 said they
found little scientific basis for establishing what BLM considers to be
appropriate, ecologically based caps on horse numbers and even less basis for
estimating the overall population itself.
“It seems that the national statistics are the product of
hundreds of subjective, probably independent, judgments and assumptions by range
managers and administrators,” the report said.
BLM’s current population estimate likely is anywhere from 10
percent to 50 percent short of the true level, the report said.
The agency averaged removing 8,000 horses from the range
annually from 2002 to 2011. Last year, it spent 60 percent of its wild horse
budget on holding facilities alone, more than $40 million, the committee said.
Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.