NACD takes on the West’s wild horses, burros problem

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By Emma Shumway

WASHINGTON, July 7, 2016 – Together with other members of the National Horse and Burro Rangeland Management Coalition (NHBRMC), the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) held a briefing for congressional staffers Wednesday to shed some much needed light on the mismanagement of wild horses and burros on federal lands.

Keith Norris, director of government affairs and partnerships with the Wildlife Society, kicked off the meeting with a fact some in attendance found shocking – wild horses are invasive species.

The 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act deemed domestic horses who were brought to North America by Europeans in the 1500s as “wild” and also stipulated that these animals be sustainably managed on federal lands. In his presentation to a crowd of 50 or more, Norris demonstrated just how problematic wild horse and burro overpopulation is for federal land managers. According to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) data, he said, the current on-range population of wild horses and burros is 67,000; and its growing at an annual rate of 15 to 20 percent. Last year, the federal government spent $77.2 million to manage these herds and still witnessed exponential population growth.

Next up to the podium was Lia Biondo, representing the Society for Range Management, and Chris Heck, natural resources policy specialist for NACD, to highlight the impacts of overpopulation. They told attendees that excess horses on the Western range threaten the well-being of both native wildlife –  including elk, mule deer, pronghorn, and sage grouse – and the horses and burros themselves. Other detrimental effects of overpopulation include rangeland ecosystem degradation and an increasing demand placed on taxpayer dollars.

Ryan Yates, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, touched on the congressional limitations hindering BLM’s ability to manage excess wild horses – including a countrywide ban on horse slaughter – which have together resulted in too few removals and adoptions, and the insufficient use of fertility control techniques.

After offering a short summary of the conflict and controversy filled history surrounding their management, Wildlife Society’s Assistant Director of Government Affairs and Partnerships Cameron Kovach listed some potential solutions for the problems excess wild horses cause. The coalition’s primary suggestion was to implement large-scale removals to achieve AML (Appropriate Management Levels). Once AML is met – currently the AML is set at 26,715 horses and burros, over 40,000 fewer animals than are on BLM lands today – then the group recommends following up with smaller, systematic removals and expanded application of fertility control and sterilization to maintain AML. Combined, these strategies could potentially cut on-range management costs in half, the speakers said.

Finally, Kovach recommended that Congress play a role in achieving this sustainable solution by funding the Wild Horse and Burro Program appropriately – in 2015, only 2.4 percent of BLM’s budget or wild horse and burro management went toward gathers and removals – and providing report language supporting BLM’s sterilization research and increased removal of wild horses and burros from the range.

The questions from the audience showed an engaged and interested crowd, both hopeful about the future of wild horse management in the U.S. and willing to help make a change. The NHBRMC demonstrated a deep knowledge of the science behind maintaining a sustainable rangeland ecosystem and a commitment to problem solving through collaboration. For information about the NHBRMC, visit the group’s website by clicking here.

To read more of NACD Policy Intern Emma Shumway’s stories, check back here at NACD’s blog frequently.

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