BUTTE – A recent report by the National Research Council says the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is doing a poor job managing its Wild Horse and Burro Program.
The report, which was commissioned by the BLM and released in early June, says the bureau is offering only short-term solutions to the long-term problem of managing nearly 90,000 wild horses under its care.
Specifically, the report says the bureau should use better science to estimate the number of wild horses and their effect on public land. It also says the BLM is not doing enough to check the population growth of the horses, which is growing at an annual rate of 15 to 20 percent.
Earlier this year, the Spanish Q Ranch near Ennis became the first long-term wild horse facility in Montana. The approximately 15,000-acre ranch, owned by Karen and Greg Rice, is now home to 710 wild horses. The ranch has a 10-year contract with the BLM and a holding capacity of 1,150 horses.
The study took the BLM to task for its practice of rounding up the horses off Western lands and sending them to facilities such as the Spanish Q. The report said this practice does manage to keep the wild horse population on the open ranges at a sustainable level for the short-term, but it does little to solve the long-term problem of what to do with the overabundance of the animals.
The report suggested that better fertility-control methods be used to check the population growth.
Tom Gorey, a bureau spokesperson, said the BLM already uses fertility drugs on the horses, but that the current technology is costly and ineffective. He said the anti-fertility treatment, the Porcine Zona Pellucida vaccine, known as PZP, lasts only two years, which requires the horses to be gathered more often. This gathering can be difficult since the horses are spread over such a large area, according to Gorey.
“What we’re looking for is a longer lasting (anti-fertility) agent,” Gorey told The Montana Standard during a phone interview on Friday. “We can’t approach horses at close range because we are managing horses and burros over 26.9 million acres. That presents an enormous logistical problem.”
The BLM estimates there are about 38,000 wild horse roaming Western range land, which the agency says is about 11,000 more than can be healthily sustained by the land.
Along with the wild horses living on the Western ranges, about 49,000 more horses live in BLM’s short-term and long-term holding facilities.
Currently, the practice of rounded up and shipping unadoptable horses to these holding facilities eats up well over half of the program’s budget. In 2012, that budget was $75 million, and the BLM spent about $51 million for housing and rounding up the animals.
The Rices receive about $1.36 per horse, per day, or about $30,000 a month for managing the horses on their private land. Including the Spanish Q, there are 25 of these long-term facilities, and many other short-term holding facilities.
“We’d rather not be in this position,” Gorey said. “It would be ideal if every horse and burro could be put into the hands of a caring family so the funding of these horses could be taken out of the taxpayers’ hands.”
Along with its fertility control methods, the report also questioned the science the BLM was using to estimate the number of horses and their effect on the Western land where they roam. The report said the bureau’s estimate of the 38,000 horses now living on the open range could be an under-estimation by as much as 50 percent.
Gorey said his agency is still considering the findings of the report and that they will have more to say in the future. However, he did say that the report validates some of the practices of the BLM. For years, he said, opponents of the round-up practices accused the agency of intentionally inflating the number of horses so as to justify those round-ups, which are often conducted with the aid of helicopters.
“This is consistent to what we’ve been saying for years,” Gorey said. “This makes it clear that we don’t exaggerate the numbers.”
The BLM was charged with the handling of the horses through a 1971 Act of Congress. It also manages the public land under its jurisdiction for a number of other competing interests, including cattle grazing, energy exploration and recreation.
Gorey said folks in Montana should understand that the Ennis facility and any other long-term facilities that might come to the Big Sky state in the future would be operated correctly. Four neighboring landowners have appealed the transfer of the wild horses to the Spanish Q. The Interior Board of Land Appeals has yet to rule on those appeals.
“There is nothing to fear,” he said. “(The facilities) are all well managed. We understand our legal and civic responsibilities to make sure these horses are well-cared for and that property lines are respected.”
The members of the research council that created the 450-page report were drawn from the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology and health policy advice under a congressional charter.