National Research Council’s New Wild Horse Report Tells BLM “Your ‘Business-as-Usual’ Practices Will Be Increasingly Expensive and Unproductive”

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Guy Palmer, DVM, PhD of Washington State University led the National Research Council study, whose report on BLM wild horse management was released today.

Note: An informational webinar on the wild horse study is planned to explain the report to the public. On Tuesday, June 18, 2013 at 11:00 am EDT, Dr. Palmer will give a 30-minute online presentation followed by a question-and-answer period. Advanced registration is recommended.

What does the future hold for wild horses and burros roaming on land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) in the western part of the United States?

An independent report was provided to the BLM today that recommends re-thinking the current practice of removing free-ranging horses from public lands; experts found that his practice promotes a high population growth rate, and maintaining them in long-term holding facilities is both economically unsustainable and incongruent with public expectations. The new report by the National Research Council is 630 pages long and addresses a long list of issues related to both the horses in holding and the horses roaming free.

The report, Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward, says that tools already exist for BLM to better manage horses and burros on healthy ecosystems, enhance public engagement and confidence, and make the program more financially sustainable. It also provides evidence-based approaches that, if widely and consistently implemented, can improve the management of these animals on public lands in the western U.S.

The committee that wrote the report determined that most free-ranging horse populations are growing at 15 percent to 20 percent a year, meaning these populations could double in four years and triple in six years. With no intervention by BLM, the horse population will increase to the point of self-limitation, where both degradation of the land and high rates of horse mortality will occur due to inadequate forage and water.

In addition, periodic droughts, many of them severe, in the western public lands cause immediate and often unpredicted impacts. There is little if any public support for allowing these impacts on either the horse population or the land to take place, and both go against BLM’s program mission.

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.

To manage horse populations without periodic removals, widespread and consistent application of fertility control would be required, the committee determined. Three methods in particular — porcine zona pellucida (PZP) and GonaCon™ for mares and chemical vasectomy for stallions — were identified as effective approaches.

“The committee recommended these approaches based on the evidence of their efficacy with other populations, notably the horses on Assateague Island, but cautioned that scaling up use of these methods to the larger and more disseminated horse populations in the western U.S. will be challenging,” said Guy Palmer, a veterinarian with Washington State University and chair of the study committee.

The committee also strongly recommended that BLM improve and standardize its methodology to estimate population size, stressing the importance of accurate counts as the basis for all management strategies. A large body of scientific literature suggests that the proportion of animals missed in current surveys ranges from 10 percent to 50 percent.

Additionally, an examination of the genetics and health of population groups as well as of the range lands they occupy can be used to assure that both the animal populations and the ecosystem are being appropriately managed. Developing an iterative process whereby public participants could engage with BLM personnel scientists on data gathering and assessment would increase the transparency, quality, and acceptance of BLM’s decision-making process.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. Panel members, who serve pro bono as volunteers, are chosen by the Academies for each study based on their expertise and experience and must satisfy the Academies’ conflict-of-interest standards. The resulting consensus reports undergo external peer review before completion.

Key findings of the report include:

  • Management of free-ranging horses and burros is not based on rigorous population-monitoring procedures.
  • On the basis of the information provided to the committee, the statistics on the national population size cannot be considered scientifically rigorous.
  • Horse populations are growing at 15-20 percent a year.
  • Management practices are facilitating high horse population growth rates.
  • The primary way that equid populations self-limit is through increased competition for forage at higher densities, which results in smaller quantities of forage available per animal, poorer body condition, and decreased natality and survival.
  • Predation will not typically control population growth rates of free-ranging horses.
  • The most promising fertility-control methods for application to free-ranging horses or burros are porcine zona pellucida (PZP) vaccines, GonaConTM vaccine, and chemical vasectomy.

In response to the report, Holly Hazard, senior vice president of programs and innovations for The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), issued the following statement:

“The current wild horse program has been a fiscal and animal-welfare disaster, and the BLM needs to get off this treadmill. It’s time for a new way forward that is better for horses and better for taxpayers.

“We’re pleased to see that many of the committee’s key findings echo the long-standing concerns that The Humane Society of the United States has posed to the department. We hope that the new leadership will take these findings seriously and begin to make management decisions through a collaborative process that involves both the agency and the public, as recommended in the report. To that end, The HSUS has developed a proposal to present to the agency for a bold new program that meets the challenges of the budget, the horse population and land-use issues head on. We plan to present this to the department within the next few weeks.”

Pre-publication copies of Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward are available from the National Academies Press on the Internet at or by calling 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242.

About Dr. Palmer: According to his biography on the Washington State University website, Guy Palmer, DVM, PhD, (honoris causa) holds the Jan and Jack Creighton Endowed Chair in Global Health at Washington State University where he is Regents Professor of Pathology and Infectious Diseases and is Professor of Life Sciences and Bioengineering at the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology. Dr. Palmer serves as the founding Director of the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health, a multi-disciplinary institute with the mission of addressing global disease challenges through research, education, global outreach, and application of disease control at the animal-human interface.

Material from an NRC press release was used in the creation of this article.

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PBS Special “Horses of the West” Airs This Month–But You Might Have to Look For It

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We wait and wait and wait for television specials about horses to make it to prime-time “network” television in the United States. We tweeted to pump up the ratings when Zenyatta was on 60 Minutes. We wish we had cable so we could watch HBO’s “Luck”–even though we don’t bet. We donate to PBS because we are anxious for the next installment of filmmaker Ginger Kathrens’ updates on the mustang stallion Cloud and his band of mares in the Wyoming mountains.

In March, PBS kindly offers HORSES OF THE WEST: AMERICA’S LOVE STORY. This special documentary takes viewers on an emotional journey on horseback through the American West. Narrated by actress Ali MacGraw, this new PBS special celebrates the remarkable relationship of horses and the humans who love them, while offering a broad overview of the many different roles horses play.

The opening quote by one of my favorite writers, author Thomas McGuane, hooked me. But as I watched, I realized that the special was shot in the west, to be sure. It was produced by a PBS group in Utah, as a matter of fact.

But except for the rugged Rockies in the background and the cowboy hats that crop up from time to time, this special is really about all horses, anywhere and everywhere. It explores universal themes and carefully portrays the unique character of the American Mustang horse in a positive light.

The film crew visits the Utah state prison farm in Gunnison, Utah, where inmates work to gentle and train wild horses so they can be offered for adoption. Kerry Despain, who runs the prison’s wild horse program, says the relationship is as beneficial for the men as for the horses they train.

For inmate Richard Evans, the horses provide a sense of freedom “akin to flying. I just love galloping and feeling the wind. I feel like being around the horses has calmed me down as a person, has taken an edge off me.”

Not surprisingly, the inmates become so attached to the horses that it can be emotionally hard on them when the animals are actually adopted. “It’s your best bud and it just kind of hurts your feelings when he leaves and you’re kind of a little heart broke,” says inmate Waylon Riddle. “You gain a relationship, a bond with that horse and he’s gone.”

“Horses of the West” also shows how horses can rescue and heal humans. The film tells the story of two special wild horses at the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah. Shelby, a two-year old Cedar Mountain mustang, was adopted as a colt. Fly, another mustang, was rescued at the same time as a friend for Shelby.

Both are ideally suited for their role as therapy animals. “If their participant has a disability, they’re able to pick up on that and understand what kind of needs that person might have,” says the center’s Abby Ferrin.

Hippotherapy, which uses the movement of the horse as a treatment strategy, improves muscle tone, balance, coordination, motor development and emotional well-being. “I say in a lot of ways he (the horse) rescued her,” says Jenifer, the mother of Sarah Barber, one of the children profiled.

Rounding out the program are a profile of some magnificent Arabians; a visit to the Best Friend Animal Sanctuary to check in on rescued Thoroughbreds; a foray to see working American Quarter Horses on the Montana ranch of author Thomas McGuane; and a colorful look at the striking beauty of the Appaloosa breed and its Nez Perce heritage.

KUED producer John Howe crafted the documentary. It earned Howe the Golden Eagle award from CINE for excellence in non-fiction documentary production for 2011. Professionally judged by national television programmers and producers, the Golden Eagle is awarded to programs that represent “…the industry’s highest standards of production quality and integrity.”

I’m not sure what it says that my local Boston PBS station decided to air this program at 3 a.m. on March 14. If you check your local listings, you might find out that your local area is luckier. Maybe it was the word “West” in the title; it’s hard to believe that those wise PBS decision-makers in Boston thought no one here would be interested in mustangs or therapeutic riding or the human-animal bond.

Those things are oblivious to geography or points of the compass. They’re everywhere, and people are interested, whether they are horsepeople or not. And the horse world needs this special to be aired during prime time.

If this special is not being shown on your local PBS station, or has been relegated to a time slot where it’s not likely to be seen by anyone but late-night security guards and insomniacs, join me in writing a letter to express your disappointment to your local station.

I could survive with one less “Antiques Roadshow” this month if it meant that “Horses of the West” could be on during primetime. How about you?

Maybe that could happen next month, or the month after that, if enough of us care.

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AAEP’s BLM Task Force Publishes Recommendations to Improve Captive Wild Horse Care and Handling in Holding Facilities

Wild HorsesA task force from the American Association of Equine Practitioners has publisheded a white page report on welfare and living conditions in the Bureau of Land Management’s holding facilities. Photo credit Alexxandra R. Duschner.

aaep color logoThe following announcement was received today via a press release from the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP). The AAEP reaches more than 5 million horse owners through its over 10,000 members worldwide and is actively involved in ethics issues, practice management, research and continuing education in the equine veterinary profession and horse industry.

The American Association of Equine Practitioners’ Bureau of Land Management Task Force today released its evaluation and recommendations for improving the care and handling of the nation’s wild horses. The report comes at the request of the Bureau of Land Management, which asked the AAEP in June 2010 to evaluate the handling, health care, and welfare of the horses and burros at BLM wild equid gathers and holding facilities.

Beginning last fall, the AAEP BLM Task Force visited multiple BLM sites during a six-month period to observe gathers and evaluate conditions at short-term holding and long-term pasture facilities. The task force’s data collection was limited to the safety, health status, health management, care, handling and welfare of equids in the BLM program.

Bill Moyer DVM

William Moyer DVM, AAEP President

“The task force concluded that the care, handling and management practices utilized by the BLM are appropriate for this population of horses and generally support the safety, health status and welfare of the animals,” said William Moyer, DVM, AAEP president and a member of the task force. “However, the task force did see areas that can be improved.”

Key recommendations include:
* During gathers, all contract helicopter pilots should adopt conservative flying patterns that allow a safe buffer distance between the helicopter and the horses, and between the helicopter and the ground.

* Areas of solid footing should always be provided in short-term holding facilities to allow the horses a place to lie down. In addition, resident horse numbers should be adjusted as needed seasonally within short-term holding facilities to avoid overcrowding when extreme weather is expected or present.
* Biosecurity standards and protocols should be adopted at short-term holding facilities in order to reduce the spread of the bacteria Streptococcus equi subspecies equi, commonly known as strangles, and minimize outbreaks of this and other infectious diseases.

In addition, the task force’s 35-page report emphasizes that controlling the reproductive rate of the wild horses on the range is a central issue for all discussions involving the care and management of the wild horse population.

“The AAEP encourages the BLM to prioritize research and application of effective fertility control methods in order to reduce the foaling rate in wild herds,” stated John Mitchell, DVM, AAEP president elect and Task Force chair. “The Task Force believes the control of foaling rates is the best available method to manage the wild horses on the range with minimal intervention.”

Added Mitchell, “The AAEP will gladly continue if needed as a resource for equine medical expertise to the BLM Wild Horse and Burro program.”

The AAEP BLM Task Force report is available here. For more information, contact Sally Baker, AAEP director of marketing and public relations, at (859) 233-0147 or

End of news release

In perusing the white paper document, several additional recommendations caught my eye that might be of interest to anyone concerned with the welfare of wild horses in BLM holding facilities:

•    When equids undergo any procedure that requires general anesthesia, a surgical plane of anesthesia should be present before the skin is incised to insure a pain‐free surgery. Additional anesthetic medications should be administered as necessary to achieve and maintain a surgical plane of anesthesia. A uniform surgical anesthesia protocol should be in place and reviewed with all contract veterinarians concerning medical procedures at all BLM horse management sites.
•    Foot trimming schedules should be created and customized for each facility in accordance with environmental conditions and periodic inspections to reduce the likelihood of excessively long hooves.
•    Horse population numbers in short‐term holding facilities should be matched with the capacity of the pens at the facility. Population numbers should be adjusted as needed seasonally to avoid overcrowding when extreme weather is expected or present.    The AAEP recommends the BLM utilize the facility manager, the contract veterinarian for the facility, and an APHIS veterinarian familiar with the site to create guidelines and limits for total horse numbers for each site. The Salt Lake Regional facility had an overpopulation of horses for the weather conditions at the time of the task force visit.

In addition to Dr. Moyer and Dr. Mitchell, the task force members were Drs. Rocky Bigbie, Kent Carter, Jacy Cook, Ann Dwyer,  Roger Rees, Stuart Shoemaker, Beau David Whitaker, and Susan White.

(three recommendations reproduced verbatim from the white paper document by The Jurga Report)

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BLM’s Wild Horse Plan Revision: Will It Be Enough? (Will It Ever Be Enough?)

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It hit the streets like the front-page news we knew it would be. But was it news?

Today was the day that Bob Abbey, Director of the Bureau of Land Management, announced that the agency is “accelerating fundamental reforms to how it manages wild horses and burros on public lands”. At last! The long-awaited document was released to the public in an abbreviated 8-page summary, and now the comments are starting to roll in. Publication of the plan had been postponed from previous announcements in 2010.

The report follows the passing of last week’s Burton Amendment in the US House of Representatives, which effectively cut $2 million from the BLM’s wild-horse storage budget for the coming year. This was intended as the Republicans’ financial wrist-slap to get the BLM’s attention about the seemingly unsustainable bill to US taxpayers to maintain massive holding pens and pastures for the horses.

At the same time, when the Burton Amendment was under discussion, a Democratic representative called for expansion of birth control programs by the BLM, but the House did not specifically suggest that, or appropriate any money for it.

The BLM’s proposed strategy announced today includes a possible 25 percent reduction in the number of wild horses removed from the range for at least the next 2 years; reaffirming the central role that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS)’s on-going review of the program will have on science-based management decisions; increasing adoptions; significantly expanding the use of fertility control to maintain herd levels; and improving its care and handling procedures to enhance the humane treatment of the animals. The BLM will continue to oppose the killing or slaughter of wild horses or burros as a management practice.

“We’ve taken a top to bottom look at the wild horse and burro program and have come to a straightforward conclusion: we need to move ahead with reforms that build on what is working and move away from what is not,” Director Abbey said. ”To achieve our goal of improving the health of the herds and America’s public lands, we need to enlist the help of partners, improve transparency and responsiveness in the program, and reaffirm science as the foundation for management decisions.  It will take time to implement these reforms, but as a first step we are aiming to increase adoptions and broaden the use of fertility control. And while we do this, we are reducing removals while NAS helps us ensure that our management is guided by the best available science.”

But the changes listed in the document sound more like minor tweaks than “accelerating fundamental reforms to how it manages wild horses and burros on public lands”.

Specifically, the BLM’s new plan proposes these “changes”:

NAS study—The BLM has commissioned the National Academy of Sciences to review previous wild horse management studies and make recommendations on how the BLM should proceed in light of the latest scientific research. The NAS review is expected to be completed in early 2013.  Specifically the study will look at the methods for population modeling, the annual rates of population growth, fertility control methods, evaluation of carrying capacity of various lands to support wild horse herds, genetic diversity in wild horse herds, and predator impact on wild horse population growth.

Issue Procedures to Facilitate Long-term Care by Partners — The BLM will release within the next 30 days specific procedures by which members of the public can apply to enter into partnerships with the federal government for long-term care of wild horses that are removed from the public rangeland.

Increase Science-Based Fertility Control.  The BLM proposes to significantly increase the number of mares treated with fertility control – from 500 in 2009 to a target of 2,000 in each of the next 2 years during the NAS study, pending sufficient budget allocations. Director Abbey said the BLM’s ultimate goal is to make various fertility control measures the primary means to maintain healthy population levels. He said the BLM intends to work closely with the Humane Society of the United States to implement and monitor this expanded effort.

Reduce Removals – The BLM intends to reduce the annual number of wild horses removed for at least the next 2 years from 10,000 to 7,600 – a level that would essentially maintain the current number of wild horses and burros on the range. The NAS review would be completed in early 2013. Abbey said that while drought or other emergencies may require the removal of more than 7,600 animals, the BLM has decided to adopt this more conservative approach pending input from the NAS regarding the number of horses than can be safety and humanely left on the open range.

An analysis of the public’s comments and a detailed proposed implementation strategy will be posted at on February 28, 2011. The public is invited to review and provide comments to the BLM on this strategy through March 30, 2011, and should be submitted by email to with “Comments on Strategy” in the subject line.

The entire BLM summary document can be downloaded as a PDF file:

The first comment I saw came from Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). While Pacelle praised the BLM for some of the points in its plan–including the increased use of fertility control, a program long supported by HSUS–Pacelle’s overall comment could be summed up when he wrote in his blog, “A paradigm shift is needed in this program, not just a course correction.” Pacelle’s comments can be read on the HSUS web site.

Personally, I question the efficiency and financial validity of adding another layer of government agency collaboration. Scientific management of the horses sounds like a valid idea, but what has the BLM, with all its staff, resources and historical data, been basing its decisions on until now? It seems like a two-year NAS study, if there is to be one, should be independent, perhaps reporting directly to Congress or to the Department of Interior, not operating under the BLM.

A Presidential commission might be in order, at this point.

I may be one of those people sitting on the east coast criticizing what’s going on out west. I may not know much about the politics of public land use in the western states. But I think it’s time for the U.S. Government to treat the issue of managing wild horses as a national wildlife crisis, exclusive of land-use politics. It’s time for the government to stop thinking of wild horses as a necessary nuisance and start thinking of them, first and foremost, as endangered wildlife.

I’m sure the NAS would assemble a blue-ribbon panel of land-use, geology, geography and zoology academics from the universities of the western states to scrutinize how scientific the BLM has been in designing and implementing its management scheme. But the BLM doesn’t tell us to what end that science would serve the horses, since the Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act is what needs to be defended not scientifically analyzed, or affect a long-range solution to the currently unsustainable warehousing of wild animals.

And how long would it take before any NAS suggestions could be implemented? The slow movement of such studies, along with the ensuing pilot studies, feasibility studies and requests for funding, buys the BLM probably five more years of unscientific management under the current system. And who knows if any new programs will be funded for the BLM budget in the future? How much will the NAS study cost?

Don’t let the wild horses go the way of California condors, polar bearssea turtles and whooping cranes, so that the US Fish and Wildlife Service ten years from now will have to ask Congress for a huge budget to reintroduce genetically-viable descendants of the last truly wild horses, captive-bred in some pens somewhere, into a tiny corner of a native Nevada habitat.

If the BLM has reached a dead-end in their ability to find ways to manage the wild horses, the agency should cry “uncle!” and turn the management of horses over to a different government agency.  Perhaps the endangered habitat of the wild horses has itself led to the endangered status of these animals. It may not be their numbers, but the way they are perceived that would classify them as a new type of “endangered”.

Endangered by 40 years of well-intentioned but ultimately unsustainable management of a wildlife species by a land-use agency. Before our very eyes, the US Government has enabled the BLM to put the wild horse in a class of wildlife all its own. The wild horse’s plight has been our doing. Our tax dollars at work created this mess.

Wouldn’t we be better off finding a way out of the current unsustainable system now, instead of perpetuating plans that would only lead us further in? Wild horses are the only wildlife species I can think of that are endangered by the very system empowered to protect them.

Shaded segment is directly quoted from the BLM. Top photo by Alexxandra R. Duschner

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