DENVER, Nov. 7 (UPI) -- The U.S. Bureau of Land Management must utilize adoption, sterilization and roundups to drastically reduce the number of wild horses and burros on public lands, an advisory panel suggests.
The bureau's Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, a citizen group of wild horse and burro stakeholders, met in Washington, D.C., last week, to advise the bureau on best practices.
After multiple lawsuits and public outcry, the bureau's horse management teams have been limited to emergency removal of horses and burros. The agency needs more tools to reduce the number of animals on public lands, said Fred Woehl, the board chairman.
Longtime wild horse advocates fear even the proposed steps might not be enough to slash the nation's estimated 90,000 wild horses and burros to 26,715 -- the number the bureau thinks is environmentally sustainable.
But activists worry federal agencies might loosen rules and allow horses to be sold for slaughter, as has happened in the past.
Wild mustangs and burros, the descendants of escaped horses from the U.S. pioneer era, range freely over 27 million acres of public lands in 10 states, protected under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.
Agency officials say that with few natural predators, their population has exploded and that some herds can double in four years. The animals wander onto private lands, overgraze vegetation and deplete water resources. This leads to undernourishment and dehydration.
"These are tough situations that require tough choices to be made," said board member Steven Yardley, a Utah cattle rancher. "We are facing an ecological disaster."
In 2018, Congress blocked an agency proposal to sell captured wild horses to Canada and Mexico for slaughter. Both countries sell horse meat to Asia. A year earlier, Congress blocked a proposal for "humane euthanization" of thousands of wild horses.
The Bureau of Land Management plans to ask Congress for $5 billion over the next 15 years, or about $3,750 per animal per year, to bring population levels down, said William Pendley, acting director of the agency.
A proposed compromise was crafted this spring with input from the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, as well as the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Part of the plan includes strategic roundups in states like Nevada, where wild horse and burro populations have outgrown the environment's capacity to support them, the Bureau of Land Management said.
In 2019, the bureau removed 7,276 horses and burros from rangelands according to a schedule published online. Most of the animals captured in roundups the bureau calls "gathers" are taken to long-term holding pastures in Kansas and Oklahoma.
Once captured on the range, a horse in long-term care costs taxpayers about $50,000 during its lifetime, panel members said. Some 50,000 off-range horses are in long-term care.
As part of the effort, the bureau has used helicopters to round up horses, which animal rights activists say is unnecessarily cruel. This month, the bureau plans to use helicopters to round up 365 horses in Idaho.
"You take a band of horses and run them for mile after mile with a helicopter where they're driven into a [fenced] trap," said former advisory board member Ginger Kathrens, a Colorado-based documentary filmmaker who has filmed the bureau's horse-gathering operations. "Some of them break their legs, some are traumatized. It's just inhumane."
Starting in March, a program to adopt horses and burros offered a $1,000 incentive to adopters. More than 7,000 horses and burros were adopted, the agency said.
Two veterinary groups -- American Association of Equine Practitioners and American Veterinary Medical Association -- have recommended "unrestricted sales" of horses that are over 10 years old or have failed to be adopted three times.
Animal rights groups quickly reacted, claiming this could result in slaughter of these horses. They worried that the bureau might use the veterinarian policy statement to push back against current rules that horses can't be sold into the export market to Canada and Mexico.
Meanwhile, in an 8-1 vote, the panel agreed to recommend that the bureau continue a controversial plan to spay female horses on the rangelands. The "ovariectomy via colpotomy" procedure involves inserting a metal rod in the animal and severing the horse's ovaries.
Last year, veterinary research partners at Colorado State University withdrew from a proposed mass-spaying event in Oregon's Warm Springs horse colony, after outrage from animal right activists that the process was "barbaric." The bureau plans to continue with the procedure, anyway.
A temporary contraceptive hormone, delivered by dart gun, must be repeated several times and has been deemed too complicated to be effective. However, the panel said it wanted the bureau to be able to use new technology as it develops that might lead to better fertility control.
Wild horses, however, might not be to blame for destruction of rangelands and don't necessary need to be removed from them, some of those who commented at the meetings maintained.
"Wild horses are targets of a sophisticated propaganda campaign aimed at convincing the public that they are destroying public lands, even though 88 percent of BLM land has no wild horses on it," statement released by the American Wild Horse Campaign said.
The group said the bureau sought to remove the horses and "replace them with commercial livestock." It blamed oil and gas fracking, mining and livestock grazing for the degradation of public lands.
Last week, several Democratic members of Congress complained the bureau was late in releasing a yearly report on wild horses and burros.
Kathrens, the documentary filmmaker, and her group, the Cloud Foundation, met with congressional staffers Thursday to discuss humane management of wild horses on public land.
"These mass removals they're proposing leave the animals in a very vulnerable situation," Kathrens said. "We've seen it before. It's a scenario for slaughter."