For decades, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees hundreds of millions of acres of public land, has opted to spend a significant portion of its budget on a failed policy to remove thousands of “excess” wild horses from the range. Many Americans remain unaware that the federal government devotes more than $50 million each year to stampeding and rounding up horses with helicopters and then stockpiling these free-roaming animals in off-range holding facilities and corrals for the rest of their lives.
But the BLM might finally move away from this inhumane and dangerous practice, thanks to a historic vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on July 24. As part of a massive spending bill for the upcoming fiscal year, lawmakers approved an amendment — led by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) and co-sponsored by Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ) — directing the BLM to allocate $11 million of its budget to proven, humane fertility control to manage wild horses. The last vote on a measure to protect wild horses before the full House was more than a decade ago.
The recent amendment could help set a new course for the BLM’s management strategy at a crucial time. Last year, Congress awarded the BLM an additional $21 million in the hopes that the agency would finally change its ineffective system of removing wild horses from the range. While the total number of horses in the BLM’s holding facilities has stayed roughly the same since 2012 — 46,000 horses — the agency’s budget has ballooned from $75 million to more than $102 million this year.
Rather than try to rein in costs, the BLM proposed to double down on roundups in a recent report to Congress. The agency’s long-term “vision” is to accelerate mass removals to the tune of nearly $1 billion over the next five years alone — with minimal commitment to implementing effective fertility control methods to curb population growth.
Over the years, horse advocates have observed foals dying from exhaustion while trying to keep up with their mothers during BLM stampedes, and terrorized horses crashing through barbed wire. Last month, a wild mare suffered a broken neck after colliding with a pen during a helicopter roundup in Utah. After she died, BLM wranglers used chains to drag her away. The shocking image of a federally protected animal being treated like trash sparked immediate public outcry.
Although the BLM is charged with protecting our nation’s iconic wild horses under the landmark Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, Acting Director William Perry Pendley recently characterized these animals as an “existential threat” to our public lands. Yet he continues to downplay the impacts of livestock grazing, oil or gas drilling, mineral extraction, and other consumptive uses.
By contrast, Grijalva has long championed equine welfare and has been a persistent critic of the BLM’s treatment of wild horses. As the congressman noted in a joint letter to lawmakers earlier this year, “we remain concerned that BLM’s current management of equine populations on public land is ineffective and unsustainable.”
The Porcine Zona Pellucida vaccine (commonly known as PZP) has been used successfully for decades on wild horses and enjoys broad support among animal protection groups and in the scientific community as the best option available. By the BLM’s own admission, PZP has no adverse effects on herds, is at least 90 percent effective, and can reduce or even eliminate the need for roundups.
In 2013, the National Academy of Sciences reviewed the BLM’s management of wild horses and unequivocally recommended PZP for large-scale use. To date, however, the BLM has been reluctant to embrace fertility control, claiming that the PZP vaccine is only a temporary fix on smaller herds and would exhaust staff resources. In reality, the agency has spent less than 1 percent of its budget on fertility control in recent years.
The BLM keeps repeating the same mistakes but expecting a different outcome. Fortunately, House lawmakers have decided to intervene. It is still unclear whether the Senate will follow. But given the inexplicable stagnation in the BLM’s management plan, the House vote is a reason to be optimistic that America’s wild horses across the rural West might one day regain the respect and freedom they deserve.
Joanna Grossman, Ph.D., is equine program manager for the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C.