The BLM’s National Wild Horse & Burro Advisory Board (AB) July 9-11, 2019 meeting in Boise, Idaho was largely a staged event. The 9-member Board convened with a bare quorum present — two members including the sole wild horse advocate, Ginger Kathrens, have not (at least not definitively) been renominated, and another position is vacant, since the White House dallied on approving recommendations made by the Agency. The remaining members followed a pre-screened script aimed at lobbying Congress to approve additional FY20 appropriations enabling the Agency, with no accountability or oversight, to carry out a monumental series of roundups and proceed with abusive surgical sterilizations and sex ratio manipulations. With the nominal support of two animal welfare bureaucracies and one wild horse sanctuary — “diverse groups coming together” – the BLM feels closer than ever to achieve its goal of crashing wild equid population on the range. Pumped up about these prospects, and by the pending move of BLM headquarters to rural Colorado, Board members were in a jovial mood.
Rittenhouse on PZP, Range Impacts and All the Tools
In his July 10 presentation Bruce Rittenhouse, Acting WHB Director, said BLM’s Report to Congress to be released in August will include technical protocols for a permanent sterilization program, desired funding levels for tens of thousands of WHB removals, and a look at the merits of “euthanizing” unadoptable older mustangs and burros. He stressed the aim of bringing population levels to the overall AML of 26,690 within 10-15 years. Answering a Board question about the urgency of this goal, Rittenhouse said if enough funds were appropriated by Congress, BLM stands ready to remove 18-20,000 equids in 2019. What about going beyond roundups? “We’re looking at all the tools in the toolbox,” he replied. (Note: This is code for killing unwanted captive equines and sales without limitation, i.e. selling to slaughter.)
Rittenhouse professed a willingness to work with any groups on fertility control programs, but only after clearly stating his priorities. While the BLM continues to support research on PZP and other means of “safe, reversible fertility control,” it is also forging ahead on spaying, its preferred FC option, which in true Orwellian fashion it calls “humane permanent sterilization.” This includes IUDs, oviductal blocking with glue, and ovariectomy via colpotomy (a term shunned by officials during the meeting.) As for PZP, Rittenhouse stated all mares that are removed from the range in roundups must be vaccinated. He doubted PZP could be effective in curbing population growth, because it would would require yearly gathers which are “too stressful.” He noted that the vaccine cost doesn’t include the cost of roundup and staff time, and asserted that in herds significantly over population goals, contraceptive vaccines would have to wait until AML is reached.
At one point, when Rittenhouse mentioned a recent BLM study on the value of AUMs i.e. livestock grazing to rural communities, Board member Jim French asked why not study livestock impacts on the rangelands. “That’s not for BLM to do — it’s up to outside groups to study range impacts from other BLM actions.” Rittenhouse added that the BLM states positive as well as negative impacts. No AB member pushed back against this lame response.
The Big Word from Hammond
Newly named Acting BLM Director Casey Hammond appeared on the last day of the meeting. He repeated all the mantras that infused the AB’s early deliberations — 3x over AML, wild horses guilty for everything from long-term habitat degradation to eating forage needed for cattle, overpopulation reaching critical juncture etc.. Hammond said a similar crisis had been sounded in 1999, but for “political reasons” the Bureau chose to do nothing, essentially “kicking the problem down the road.” With no supporting facts, he claimed that wild equines are hurting the multiple use purpose of the range and even contribute to fire hazards!
Hammond said the most important tool available to BLM is spaying (think ovariectomy via colpotomy.) The BLM continues to promote this “solution” through research and a renewed push to get Congressional sign-on.
Hammond’s most newsworthy comment was stating and restating — in direct contradiction to Rittenhouse — that “euthanasia” and/or sale to slaughter was “not in the planning” at this time. Hammond promised that “big plans with big numbers” were being made for roundups, and that he was in conversation with OMB, the Dept. of Commerce and the USFS to get the new program across the finish line. (Note: Hammond wears a double hat as Principle Deputy Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals. In his previous career, he served as staffer for the Senate Natural Resources Subcommittee, headed by Mike Lee, which on July 16 held a hearing on the BLM’s WHB Program with no witness speaking for the interests of WHBs.)
Getting to the Details
The main AB focus was on the triad of roundups (“gathers”), population growth suppression, and adoptions. Among the highlights were presentations by the Mustang Heritage Center about a veteran-wild horse project and a fairly new veterans program run by Leslie Friedlander of EquiCenter in Tennessee. Both had moving videos on the ways that interaction with previously unhandled wild horses helped veterans deal with PTSD and get a better new start.
These related issues brought some slivers of new information to the table:
— Adoptions: The BLM has already declared victory for this year, as adoptions have already reached 4200, with 6 months to go, compared to 4609 in 2018. Between 400 and 500 have already been paid the $1000 adoption incentive. More marketing is being done; more people are turning out for events, including the Extreme Mustang Makeovers. The on-line corral started in 2018 is just getting its legs. “It’s like a car lot,” said one enthused BLMer. As at the last AB meeting, a big focus is how to increase adoptions in the East, which have held 21 adoption events compared to 54 in the West. 4H clubs are involved in training and adoption in several Western states, but not yet further eastward. No AB member or staffer made the point that the equine adoption market has been saturated for some time.
— AMLs: Rittenhouse acknowledged the public wants to know what is needed to raise AMLs. Idaho Dir. John Ruhs said any adjustment needs a lot of supporting data. Celeste Carlisle asked what the criteria are for changing Land Use Plans (LURs). Jim French asked if an avenue exists to produce a Programmatic EIS to adjust a group of AMLs. Rittenhouse answered that a programmatic would be a very big deal, but once concluded could potentially allow the BLM to avoid new impact analyses, as it does with herbicides. On-Range Branch Chief Alan Shepherd spoke up at that point, countering that any adjustment to AMLs would need to be site-specific. It would not require an amended Resource Management Plan; the next RMP would simply confirm the new AML. As criteria, he mentioned a multiple use analysis of all grazers to determine carrying capacity. Data would also include WHB population, herd distribution on the land, use levels, vegetation trend, etc.
Shepherd then threw out a key figure, stating there’s a 1 to 1 comparison between AMLs and AUMs, e.g. an AML of 100 = 1200 AUMs. (I queried Shepherd about this at break, asking where an AML had been adjusted. He couldn’t name one case. He defended the equivalency formula saying Animal Unit Month is based on an average of one month livestock grazing, whereas WHBs are year round. The break ended before I could question this directly. BLM has repeatedly been criticized by GAO, Western Watersheds and other NGOs for not controlling cattle grazing, which typically extends far beyond the permitted period. The armed Bundy takeover of public grazing lands was an extreme, but telling example of this pattern.)
— Off Range Pastures: Holle Waddell, Off-Range Branch Chief, made a straightforward presentation with visuals on the “Public Off-Range Pastures” (PORPs), which used to be called EcoSanctuaries. The program was started in 2012, with 3 contracts in 2013. These are non-reproducing herds. Public events and adoptions were added to the program in 2017. No burros are in PORPs; sadly, no AB member asked why. Holle reviewed the acreage in several PORPs: Mowdy Ranch near Colgate has 3500; Deerwood near Laramie, 4700 acres with a capacity for 350 horses; Wind River near Lander WY, 940 acres; Svaty Ranch near Ellsworth KS,1700 acres.
— NEPA Streamlining: Leah Baker, the NEPA specialist from BLM headquarters, sat in on the last day and answered a few questions from the Board on the Agency’s push to “streamline” NEPA procedures through categorical exclusions, a much shorter time window for developing environmental assessments, and the like. Fred Woehl proposed a Programmatic Environmental Impact Study (EIS) covering the planned and potentially expanded “gathers” (roundups) and transportation of captive equines. Celeste Carlisle said it would be unnecessary, as the Agency already has a proposal for streamlining NEPA and categorical exclusions. Rittenhouse said it would be helpful to review BLM’s current guidelines.
— Budget: Michael Reiland, Budget Program Analyst, presented slides showing the 70% of BLM’s $ continues to go for short and long-term holding costs. The next biggest category is sales and adoptions, although placement costs have decreased somewhat. He acknowledged that fertility control vaccines cost $97,000, making this a zero budget item. BLM plans to move the cost of gathers into this line item! (Note: This is absurd, since roundups are not done in order to vaccinate wild mares, they are planned and implemented to reduce herd numbers. Each gather costs an average of $700 per equine. Holding corrals cost $5.25 per equine per day; long-term pastures cost $2.20/day. Herd census cost $1.3m; monitoring cost $1.9m.
Asked by Woehl to explain what would happen if there’s a Continuing Resolution (CR) on Appropriations this year, Reiland said a CR could be either agency-specific or government-wide. If impacted, the BLM could spend only the percentage of its funding already allocated for the given segment of the year. It would particularly affect gathers. AB member Barry Perryman asked for details on birth control vaccines. Rittenhouse answered that the Science and Conservation Center has 2,000 doses in stock. Shepherd added that it takes one week to make each additional thousand doses. PZP-22 is sourced elsewhere.
Board Chairman Fred Woehl steered the discussion toward a fairly short list of recommendations. These included support for standardized training for BLM volunteers and for training field personnel in desired equine confirmation. Discussion around the latter point led to a recommendation that animals with “heritable physical defects” such as a club foot be “removed, sterilized or euthanized.” The AB recommended that a Programmatic EIS be done for “fertility control” (which in the new, loose definition includes permanent sterilization) and for gathering and transporting captured animals. The recommendations for programmatic NEPA documents got pushback from HQ staffer Leah Baker, who said “it won’t fly”. AB member Carlisle also questioned them, noting that the BLM already issued a report on streamlining NEPA, but added that “I get it.”
In an ominous recommendation that smacks of rewriting the 1971 Act, the Board moved that BLM, together with USFS and USDA, review 4700 CFR (re protection, management and control of wild free-roaming horses and burros in the 1971 Act) to see where updates are needed.
Finally, the Board moved to set up a Working Group to examine — based on livestock techniques — methodologies for low-stress gather and handling. Celeste Carlisle, Barry Perryman and Sue McDonnell were named as initial members. The WG will report to the BLM AB meeting in October;
Wild horse advocates and pro-BLM speakers were evenly lined up in the comment period — 8 on each side. One wild card was Sandra Force, Western Regional Director for the Wild Horse & Burro Association, whose remarks focussed only on the fact that TIP trainers were adding extra fees to untitled horses, making it harder to get them adopted. (Force told me afterward that she runs the FB page “Wild Horse & Burro Logical Solutions” and invited me to join the discussion on this anti-WHB forum; no chance of that.)
Those speaking out for wild equines and for reforming BLM policies & practices got in some strong statements on a range of issues within the 5 minutes allotted each. The comments by Bonnie Kohlrider, who spoke first, and by Ginger Fedak are attached as examples. One surprise was Joanne Miller, a local who said she’d streamed the meeting the day before. She asked, “AML — What is Is? I see one wild horse per 16,000 acres. That’s not viable. If there’s no viability, you’re not managing. If there’s range damage, it’s not from wild horses. In the absence of facts, you create stories. I’ve heard a lot of stories here. I can count the horses!”
The ranchers and anti-WHB speakers were less in sync than usual. Former AB member Collie Hendrickson, representing the National Wild Horse & Burro Rangeland Management Coalition, spoke in favor of The Path Forward, specifically for removing 10-15,000 WHBs a year, but she also urged using “all the tools in the toolbox” i.e. slaughter. Shawn Burtenshaw of Protect the Harvest also pushed “all the tools,” bragged that he had spayed 13 fillies himself for the Futurity, and invited folks to “come watch us spay.” Devon Lee of the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, and Jim Doughy of the National County Commissioners Association, favored “humane slaughter” as the only way to keep holding costs from eating up all the BLM’s budget. Two other ranchers praised The Path Forward and the “diverse new coalition” behind it, but still pointed to the need for unrestricted sales of WHBs.
Contrary to previous AB meetings, this one acted in lockstep with BLM officials. At nearly every turn, Chairman Woehl asked Rittenhouse “will this sort of a recommendation help?” Its aim, along with industry lobbyists, is to get additional BLM appropriations for massive roundups, along with Congressional sign-on for ”permanent sterilizations,” using the HSUS/ASPCA/RTP “Path Forward” as cover. In BLM-speak, “fertility control” now includes surgically sterilizing wild horses and burros on the range by castrating stallions and tearing out the ovaries of wild mares. Whatever the varied positions of its sponsors, by opening the door to the BLM’s sweeping plan, “The Path Forward” is a Path to Extinction.
The AB’s eyes were on its next meeting in DC on October 28-31, staged to assist in lobbying (including a Congressional reception) to get the package approved. HSUS, ASPCA and RTF boast that slaughter is now “off the table.” Actually, it’s barely under the table. With no additional funding requested to care for those about to swell the numbers of equids in captivity, the call for “euthanasia” and unlimited sales has only temporarily been muffled. Ranchers who spoke at the AB meeting ifavoring the new “diversly supported” plan were clear: they want wild equids off the range and preferably dead, and they won’t back off that final goal.
BLM seems on a roll, but remains extremely sensitive to criticism. Its FY20 appropriations request is a push for unprecedentedly massive roundups, dangerous sterilization surgeries, and sex ratio manipulations leading to slow equicide on the range. In this scenario, the BLM’s broken management system is fortified, and slaughter is the thinly veiled guest at the table. If there’s a Continuing Resolution on appropriations, time is on our side. Getting these points across on Capitol Hill and to members of Congress in their own districts will help turn this train of doom around.
— Charlotte Roe