Progress, change and opportunity: Managing wild horses on the public lands

Progress, change and opportunity: Managing wild horses on the public lands
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The future of our environment and all that it sustains is a priority for the new administration. 

With science and collaboration as the principles to guide us, we have an opportunity to reform longstanding unsustainable practices and create a new regime for managing the nation’s natural resources, even as we maintain economic opportunities for our citizens. At the federal level, the appropriate stewardship of our public lands will require action on many fronts. This includes taking a fresh look at managing the many iconic species that define the American spirit. Wild horses are one such species.

Congress passed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 with good intentions and a stated goal to protect these iconic creatures as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” When President Nixon signed the legislation, he opened his statement with a recognition that “[w]e need the tonic of wildness.” Over time, however, federal management policies have not focused on the act’s original intent or its laudable goals. Instead, interpreting the act narrowly, the federal government in recent years has forsaken science as a management tool, allowed and enabled program costs to skyrocket and implemented policies and actions directly at odds with the act’s directive to protect wild horses.

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Recent policies have wrongly focused on capturing, warehousing and sterilizing these animals, while blaming them for a deteriorating landscape that has far more to do with climate change and an unwillingness to invest in the protection, restoration and sustainable management of our public lands.

Fortunately, President BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries FDA aims to give full approval to Pfizer vaccine by Labor Day: report Overnight Defense: Police officer killed in violence outside Pentagon | Biden officials back repeal of Iraq War authorization | NSC pushed to oversee 'Havana Syndrome' response MORE is stressing the need to reassess practices that are clearly not working. His bold vision to address climate change includes a commitment to conservation, specifically endorsing a goal of conserving 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030. These proposals are a recognition that the sustainability of our landscapes is at risk and a strong commitment to science and conservation are fundamental to arresting the decline in our natural systems. These principles are at the heart of “rewilding,” where restoring nature, its keystone species and relying on natural processes are all key to improving the long-term resilience of the environment.

These same principles apply to how the federal government should be managing wild horses on the range. Better integrating the use of science is critical to achieving the original goals of the 1971 act. A starting point is research supported by the CANA Foundation, where I am a legal advisor, using cutting-edge DNA technology that makes the case that the wild horse is a native species and as such, is “an integral part of the natural system of public lands,” as stated in the 1971 act. Unfortunately, it has mostly been treated as a nuisance. The federal government has been charged with managing wild horses to achieve a thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands and for determining appropriate management levels (AMLs) for each herd management area (HMA) containing wild horses. Regrettably, neither phrase has been defined and, as found by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), AMLs are controversial because there are no standards for establishing, adjusting and monitoring them.

Clearly, present day management decisions are not being driven by the best available science. The objectives of the 1971 act will be much better served through an improved understanding of the role of wild horses in a functioning ecosystem, the impacts of climate change on those systems and strategies that allow for less removals and improved range conditions for all species. A strong commitment to scientific research is also key to developing a humane contraceptive that will effectively slow the growth of wild horse populations while other long-term management strategies are being developed.

To be sure, with an estimated 95,000 wild horses populating the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)’s public lands, there are areas where the horses put undue pressure on the ecosystem and are more than the land can sustain. But simply seeking to secure additional holding facilities and pastures is not a sustainable strategy, nor consistent with the objectives of the 1971 act, particularly when being coupled with controversial sterilization techniques. 

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In 2020, the BLM spent over $65 million for off-range holding facilities, about 65 percent of the overall budget for the wild horses and burros program. It’s worth noting that the program’s budget has more than doubled over the past 10 years with no end to the increases in sight. Instead of incurring additional and ongoing costs through endless warehousing actions, the federal government should be using these resources to actively work with and appropriately incentivize private landowners, states, Indian tribes and other large landowners to support the relocation of wild horses to suitable lands.

Improved science, developing a better understanding of the horse’s role in the ecosystem and creating new partnerships to maintain wild horses on large landscapes are all consistent with the idea of sustainability, resilience and rewilding. The public range, other species and the taxpayer will all benefit. This is not, however, the approach suggested by the BLM in a May 2020 plan the agency sent to Congress. That plan should be set aside by the Biden administration and replaced with a new strategy that respects the original goals of the 1971 act, is more cost-effective for the taxpayer and is consistent with the conservation goals embodied by the 30 by 30 initiative. 

Nixon was right. Now, more than ever, “we need the tonic of wildness.” A good start will be restoring protection and preservation as the guiding principles for managing wild horses and burros on the nation’s public lands.

Michael Connor served as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior for President Obama, and he is now with the law firm WilmerHale, LLP. He serves as the legal advisor for The CANA Foundation, which works on humane horse population management strategies.