by Kayla Sargent
Displaying a spirit of compromise, groups typically staged at opposite ends of the spectrum came together to create a proposal for the BLM’s management of wild horses and burros. “The Path Forward” plan, developed in April, was signed by groups including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) as well as the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), Public Lands Council (PLC), and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). The diverse coalition coming together led to months of conversations “that often were not easy,” Nevada State Veterinarian JJ Goicoechea said.
“This is what compromise looks like and I believe in its potential,” Dr. Goicoechea, a Eureka County, Nevada rancher wrote in his testimony submitted to the Senate subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining. The current BLM wild horse and burro program and “The Path Forward” proposal were addressed in a congressional hearing July 16.
Five representatives from the BLM, Eureka County Board of Commissioners, National Horses and Burro Rangeland Management Coalition (NHBRMC), ASPCA, and Utah State University were present on the witness panel.
“This hearing was an effort to communicate where we agree, where we still disagree, and what kind of recommendations we can convey to Congress to try to get this population under control,” NHBRMC Chair Ethan Lane said. Lane submitted written testimony for the hearing on behalf of PLC and NCBA as well.
Dr. Goicoechea painted a solemn picture of the gross overpopulation of wild horses and burros to the committee. Nevada BLM lands alone are home to 47,500 horses — that does not include horses on Forest Service land, tribal horses, or feral and estray horses under state management. The appropriate management level (AML) for the entire rangeland across the ten Western states is 26,000.
“We have almost double what should be on all western rangeland,” he emphasized.
Goicoechea’s ranch borders the Triple B Herd Management Area (HMA), one of the nation’s largest at 1.2 million acres and 1,500 horses. The AML for this particular HMA is 250 horses. He said on average, the HMA’s affecting Eureka County are 449 percent of their established high-end HMA, with many over 500 percent and one exceeded 1,850 percent.
“How can we knowingly have horses dying, knowingly have natural resource damage occurring because of a population six times larger than is appropriate,” he questioned of the subcommittee. “There were numerous cases of wild horses dying due to dehydration and starvation last winter. While some groups may publicly state that this is nature taking its course, I challenge anyone to idly stand by and watch horses collapse and die from dehydration. Starvation and dehydration are inexcusable and inappropriate methods of population control. Those of us who truly make a living caring for animals, whether our own livestock or client animals, have a moral obligation to manage populations in balance with natural resources to prevent damage to the resources and above all to provide for the overall health of the animals.”
Beyond the dire picture of wild horse populations today, Lane said if growth continues doubling every four to five years, by 2028 the on-range population could reach approximately 366,000 horses. All groups conceded that something must be done.
“The Path Forward…”
The proposed plan calls for relocation of gathered and removed horses to cost-effective pasture facilities, contract leases for long-term care of removed horses, application of fertilization control, and promotion of adoptions.
Lane said specifically 15,000 to 20,000 horses should be gathered each year and “robust fertility control beyond PZP – which is strikingly ineffective” must be implemented. PZP (porcine zone pellucida) is a vaccine that works as a contraceptive that must be given in an initial series of two shots, then boosted annually. He said there are new categories of drugs that may be more effective as they last multiple years and only require one application. Ultimately, he said permanent surgical sterilization is the best solution to overpopulation.
Nevada’s vast and rugged landscape makes PZP an ineffective method. In his testimony, Goicoechea advocated for surgical sterilization of mares, a practice he said is safely used in equine medicine everyday.
“We are a unique beast,” he said. Due to the vast management areas, “a lot of the proposals that have been put forth on how to manage these horses with fertility control flat won’t work in Nevada — we can’t gather these horses one time, let alone every two to three years.”
Goicoechea said much of Wyoming’s landscape creates the same concern. He said Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), whom is on the subcommittee, has been to his operation to see firsthand the landscape and the issues it presents. Despite this evidence, some wild horse activists groups are still lobbying for PZP usage rather than surgical sterilization.
However, activist groups like HSUS and ASPCA did agree to the proposal that includes surgical sterilization usage in some cases. Lane said the members and supporters of these organizations made it difficult for these groups to support the idea.
“This was agreed to in the proposal by all these groups. But, they’re afraid of it and they don’t want the crazies on their flank to hear them talk about it,” Lane said.
Goicoechea and Lane, while proud of the spirit of collaboration demonstrated in the proposal, said at the end of the hearing they were “frustrated” to hear ASPCA Senior Vice President of Government Relations Nancy Perry put “factually inaccurate information on the record.” Goicoechea said she led the committee to believe that pregnant mares would be spayed leading to abortions. Goicoechea said according to the American Association of Equine Practitioners and American Veterinary Medical Association pregnant mares are not to be spayed.
“I would never condone unsafe or inappropriate techniques or drugs to be used, but as a scientific professional, I also would not be so foolish as to not adopt more effective tools once proven safe and effective,” he said.
Goicoechea noted that in a conversation with the witness panel prior to the hearing he clarified this with Perry and was disappointed that in the end she led the committee to falsely believe pregnant mares may be spayed with no time left for him to clarify.
However, the pair were still hopeful that “The Path Forward” and the recent Senate hearing would result in some positive changes in the BLM’s management of wild horse and burro populations. Lane said to move the plan forward it is simply “a matter of funding and some Congressional direction.”
“If we do that in an aggressive fashion over a number of years, we might be able to curb the population without the use of more effective tools like slaughter and unlimited sale — which we will continue to argue, and did today, are your most expedient route to get this population down,” Lane concluded.
Editor’s Note: In upcoming issues we will discuss controversy that still surrounds the wild horse discussion. Not all activist groups were in agreement that “The Path Forward” is a viable solution or that the hearing was a fair representation of all stakeholders.BACK