Scott Sonner / AP
Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019 | 2 a.m.
A controversial initiative that has divided equine advocates on how to best manage wild horse populations is making headway toward congressional approval.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management warns that public lands in the U.S. are being overrun by an estimated 88,000 wild horses, half of which reside in Nevada. BLM officials say these lands are well beyond capacity, with Nevada’s Appropriate Management Level — a figure used to determine the number of wild horses and burros that can thrive in balance with other uses of public land — at just under 13,000.
Last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved an additional $35 million toward the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program. Backers of the bill say funds will go toward curbing population growth, while also assuring the animals will be treated humanely.
The bill ensures that roundups are in strict compliance with the BLM’s Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program and that horses must be relocated from high-cost corrals to lower-cost off-range pastures as well as increase adoptions programs.
Congressional funding will also be allocated specifically for long-term contraceptive methods like the porcine zona pellucida vaccine, which halts fertility for about a year.
It’s part of a wider a proposal that Neda DeMayo, founder and president of horse advocacy group Return to Freedom, describes as the most “politically viable” solution to one of the most contentious debates over the last several decades.
Last spring, the group partnered with rangeland stakeholders, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Humane Society Legislative Fund to introduce the proposal to Congress.
In May, the House Appropriations Committee approved $6 million for fertility-control methods alongside targeted removals.
“We are pleased that Congress has listened to the public and is investing in key steps that the BLM must take in order to break the costly decades-long cycle of rounding up and warehousing wild horses and burros,” DeMayo said. “We supported this proposal because it ensures the protection of wild horses and burros from lethal management tools and redirects the agency’s program toward humane, on-the-range management with a focus on fertility control and increasing public-private partnerships, including range and herd monitoring.”
But advocates like Deniz Bolbol, vice president of the Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates, argue the initiative is not a compromise, rather a “disaster plan” that “sells out” the horses because it still keeps roundups on the table.
Bolbol argues that roundups, no matter how they’re implemented, are cruel and increasing the number of horses in captivity makes them more vulnerable to slaughter. She added that the BLM greatly exaggerates the wild horse population figures, rigging management level numbers against the horses, leaving out how cattle ranchers are also contributing to degrading public lands.
She supports solutions that focus on fertility control, and work together with ranchers to share the land with the horses.
“Until members of Congress listen to locals who actually live with these horses, we’ll never get a solution,” she said.
Return to Freedom spokesman Cory Golden said that while they ultimately would like to end roundups altogether, it can’t happen overnight.
“From our point of view, the goal was to protect the lives of the horses in holding while shifting the BLM’s program away from roundups to on-range, minimally invasive management using safe, proven and humane fertility control,” he said. “Congress’ support gives an unprecedented chance to take a first step in a more humane and sustainable direction.”