Two years ago, a small coalition of animal welfare groups submitted a proposal to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) outlining a framework to humanely and sustainably manage wild horses and burros on public lands, opening up a dialogue they hoped might save our herds from wholesale slaughter. Last month, Congress took unprecedented steps to assure the protection of our herds through funding for the modern version of this proposal, now supported by an unlikely coalition of Western interests standing alongside those humane organizations in a collective effort to create a new future for America’s wild horses and burros. This week was declared “Wild Horse Week” by Washington’s Mayor Bowser to coincide with the biannual Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board meeting in the District, and it seems the perfect time to ask the BLM to embrace this non-lethal and highly effective management approach.
Scientifically sound and politically feasible, this proposal is ready for immediate implementation and has rapidly gained support as an outside-the-box reset button for one of the more challenged but extremely important programs our government oversees. As the BLM lagged in implementing population management tools and allowed herds to swell, calls for lethal options have grown increasingly loud, cloaked as a necessary evil. This looming crisis prompted the ASPCA, The Humane Society of the United States, and Return to Freedom Wild Horse Conservation to craft a unique approach that will shift the agency’s energy and resources away from the costly, ineffective roundup and remove strategy employed for decades in favor of technologically advanced fertility control methods that save public funds, allow herds to roam freely on the range, and protect them from the gruesome fate of mass killing in the fields or sale to slaughter. Breaking the stalemate that has stymied progress on the wild horse and burro issue for decades unleashes a real opportunity to manage our federally protected herds as envisioned in the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act – but only if the BLM has the will to take the reins. That agency, charged with implementing the Act, will soon report to Congress on their own long-term management plan for these icons of the American West.
The framework of the humane proposal is historic for two reasons – support and scale. First, it is endorsed by notoriously strange bedfellows who have traditionally battled over competing visions for these herds. The contentious nature of wild mustang management has led to gridlock and few have held out hope of advancing protections for these animals until now. The proposal provides an off-ramp. Groups that have long advocated lethal management methods now agree to support the proposal’s core focus on the use of non-lethal, humane and effective fertility control to manage populations.
Second, this proposal envisions an effective fertility control program on a national scale. Recognizing the diversity in landscape and characteristics of each herd management area, we believe that a large-scale fertility control program is not only possible but is also the best way forward for humane and sustainable management. For years, the BLM and others have dismissed fertility control as infeasible, but the proposal provides scientific evidence and the right foundation to build consensus around this humane approach. Achieving the long-term goals of such a program will take time, just as it has taken decades for the problem to reach this boiling point. However, with consistent support from stakeholders, the scientific community, and Congress, it is the only viable way to protect our wild herds for future generations and fend off what has been a growing political threat to their survival.
With momentum building in the halls of Congress, we have a real opportunity to make meaningful change for these beloved animals. In a deeply divided Congress, consensus is an endangered political species and so rare that it deserves our attention when we spot it. Appropriators in both the House and the Senate recognized the rarity of this moment and have responded by committing resources to a comprehensive fertility control program, allocating an additional $6 million and $35 million, respectively. The strong language outlining a framework centered on implementation of fertility control also includes the first congressional directive that the BLM strictly adhere to its Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program when handling horses or burros.
Our wild horses and burros are at a critical juncture. Everyone agrees that this program in its current form is broken. By envisioning a humane path forward that retains federal protections for wild horses and burros and manages their populations through fertility control on the range, this unusual proposal offers Congress and the BLM a tangible way to protect our nation’s herds now and in the future. Recent statements by acting BLM Director William Perry Pendley, declaring our iconic herds the greatest threat to public lands struck us as out of touch and fallacious – especially given the unique moment our proposal has created. While political sands have been shifting and that alone makes this a particularly challenging program to run, the greatest threat to public lands and our horses would instead be this agency’s potential inability to embrace effective, humane, and politically feasible management options. We believe wild horse protection is synonymous with good management and we hope for a more proactive and protective posture from the agency’s leadership. Securing an on-range focused approach – one that prevents rather than reacts – is the only way to ensure that wild horses and burros will not be killed, sold for their meat, or treated in ways unconscionable to the American public.
With positive momentum building, we urge the BLM to embrace this rare moment, be part of this solution, and to act now to adopt the proposal we have crafted for the sake of the American mustang.
Nancy Perry is senior vice president of Government Relations for the ASPCA