A Peek Behind the Curtain at BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro problems

The Great Divide roundup in Wyoming. Photo: Erik Molvar.

The Free-roaming Equid and Ecosystem Sustainability (FREES) summit wrapped up in Saint George, Utah on October 14th. This was the first FREES Summit that was open to the public. Previous summits were held behind closed doors, and by invitation only.

The conference featured two presentations on sage grouse, comparing the impacts of cattle and wild horses. One presenter stated “none of these results are statistically significant,” then went on at length to talk about how the results – higher impacts for horses in certain regards – were biologically “meaningful” even though the statistical tests found no difference in the impacts of cattle alone or cattle plus wild horses. A more accurate interpretation from this study’s results would be that there is no detectable difference between cattle only, and cattle plus wild horses, in the ecological traits measured. The second study found significant results, but the presenter also noted his role in a legislative lobbying effort by the University of Nevada Reno. The centerpiece of the lobbying push was to adopt an ultimately unsuccessful resolution to prioritize wild horse removals, with an analysis showing greater biomass of wild horses than all other wild herbivores combined. This analysis famously “forgot” to mention that the 44,000 wild horses roaming Nevada were far outweighed by the 445,000 domestic cattle simultaneously competing with, and negatively impacting, Nevada’s wildlife.

There was one presentation that didn’t seem weighted either way, showing that mountain lion predation on Nevada’s Caliente wild horse herd was a significant cause of mortality, with many cougars specializing in wild horses and not switching to mule deer even after wild horse populations dropped due to a roundup. This shows some potential for natural population suppression in areas where predator populations are allowed to thrive.

There was also a series of five breakout groups where participants were invited to test-drive the USGS’s new ‘PopEquus’ wild horse population model and see if they could collaborate on different management strategies for wild horses. My organization, Western Watersheds Project, was assigned to the Wyoming group, focusing on the Salt Wells/Adobe Town wild horse population. The conversation between participants from varying perspectives was cordial, but the collaborative process predictably limited options to the status quo of birth control plus helicopter roundups. A Wyoming Department of Agriculture participant blocked consideration of livestock reductions or allowing wolves to repopulate the Red Desert and help hold down wild horse populations. The State of Wyoming asserted, and the Bureau of Land Management agreed, that a settlement between the Rock Springs Grazing Association and the Bureau constrained the Appropriate Management Level of these wild horse herds, although a close reading of the consent decree reveals the agency is only required to “consider” particular wild horse levels. In the end, there was no consensus on a plan for these herds.

The Wyoming trial run of the PopEquus model was constrained by some unrealistic assumptions: a 31% growth rate for the herd each year (highly exaggerated given that 50% of the population is male and cannot get pregnant, and wild horses don’t twin), versus only a 2% annual mortality rate (which implies wild horses living to the age of 50). But reports from other groups indicated that model parameters could readily be adjusted to reflect conditions on the ground, indicating the potential for user error but also the potential for useful results.

One of the most interesting outcomes of the Wyoming working group was the revelation that the McCullough Peaks wild horse herd, in the Bighorn Basin, has been held in check by wild horse advocates using a birth control program for more than a decade. The last roundup was in 2009, and 20 horses were removed via bait-trapping in 2014, but otherwise the population has held steady with the application of porcine zona pellucida (PZP) birth control via darting.

Salt Wells/Adobe Town, Cedar Mountain, Desatoya, and Sand Wash Basin wild horse Herd Management Areas, and the Modoc Forest Service Wild Horse Territory were given test-runs of the new model. None of the groups reached a firm consensus on which combination of management approaches should be used. The Sand Wash Basin group came closest, reaching consensus that bait trapping and birth control should be used first, with helicopter roundups only used as a last resort.

There was an increasing realization that relying solely on roundup and removal of wild horses, few of whom are adopted and most of whom end up in long-term holding pastures, is resulting in a large and expensive population of formerly wild horses relegated to private-land pastures. Not only do wild horses shipped to long-term holding cost taxpayers $2 a day – that’s $60 an Animal Unit Month – but also wild horses in short-term feedlots cost taxpayers $5 to $7 a day. Horses going to long-term holding often end up in the lush Midwestern pastures, displacing cattle from areas that are very productive and suited to their ecological niche. As a result,more cattle can be added to western public lands where they struggle to thrive (with negative consequences for the land and waterways). While the costs of the federal government’s roundup and removal program continues to escalate, agency subsidies for cattle and sheep grazing on public lands are a whole lot bigger. Simply removing the livestock from wild horse Herd Management Areas would be a more cost-effective (and ecologically beneficial) solution.

It was fascinating to be a fly on the wall at the FREES summit. It was clear by the skewed representation of presenters – no wild horse advocates or conservation organizations were invited to be presenters – that this conference was geared primarily toward reinforcing and enabling the status quo. It was also clear that both federal agencies, and the industries that benefit from wild horse removal, are entrenched in their opposition to major changes. However, the status quo is only producing controversy and public criticism, so a new approach is clearly warranted.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and is the Laramie, Wyoming-based Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife on western public lands.