Monday, February 23, 2015

BLM: Caught Between a Rock and a Horse Place

By Bob Ferris

I grew up around horses.  My sister rode and I shoveled.  She eventually rode in the Junior Grand Nationals at the Cow Palace near San Francisco.  The shoveling world had no parallel event.  But more than 40 years later I still remember Easter-Bar, Geronimo and Auber with fondness and respect.  I bear them and their kind no deep-seated shoveling grudge.  I mention this as I attended another Museum of Natural and Cultural History Darwin Days talk this past Thursday and this one was on the topic of wild horses.

Before I launch into this I will say this is a topic that is both complicated and controversial.  This seems at times to be the shadowlands where I exist most of the time swinging the cold sledgehammer of logic towards a wedge set squarely between rationalization and reason.  Even the hardest efforts are often of little benefit—much like those in knotty oak or fibrous eucalyptus—because the former wants so badly to be the latter as no one wants to think that what they revere, love or need causes harm.  This applies to feral horses, feral cats, coyote derbies, suction dredging, mute swans, lead bullets, logging or public lands grazing.  And I have been hip-deep in all of these issues.

Given the above and what I had been led to expect from other similar discussions in other states (see articles above) I was prepared to hear a lively and perhaps contentious debate.   What I heard were three presenters—Scott Beckstead of the Humane Society of the United States, Rob Sharp of the Bureau of Land Management, and Oregon Public Broadcasting's Vince Patton (see OPB piece here and video here)—who knew and cared about the subject matter and who disagreed only around edges, but not in the whole.  I left that presentation conflicted not because there was not the promised clash but because many issues went unaddressed.  

Although I do not dislike horses, I have to admit that my biases lean towards biodiversity preservation rather than animal welfare—particularly when dealing with non-native species in wild places.  In this I recognize the genetic and cultural value of lines like the Kiger Mustangs, but I tend to think of feral animals as feral and not wild.  Moreover these rare isolated strains aside, there are more than 9 million horses in the United States alone so the rationale for maintaining most of these herds in the wild is much more cultural than genetic or because of any ecological benefit.

There is also a question of consistency.  As I have been a big proponent of reducing and sometimes eliminating cattle when they cause damage or displace native species, I am not sure why—from a native biodiversity perspective—that I should feel all that much differently about feral horses than I do about cattle or sheep.  Certainly the horses are more picturesque and I feel better about them than other livestock, but when it comes to fragile rangeland resources in the arid areas of the West the benefit of the doubt—by a wide margin—has to go to native species regardless of the romance or emotions involved.

From NAS Review.
So where are we with this program?  If I were forced to characterize this BLM operation at this point I would say that we are spending about $80 million annually on a program and course of management that if we continue business-as-usual we will only be spending even more money on a worsening situation in the future with scant regard for robust science (see above Figure 2).
“Evidence suggests that horse populations are growing by 15 to 20 percent each year, a level that is unsustainable for maintaining healthy horse populations as well as healthy ecosystems.” In Abstract of Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward
The current circumstance with removing excess, non-adopted equines and placing them on paid private pastures (i.e., treating the symptoms rather than root causes) along with underestimating populations and not properly monitoring the range impacts is a lot like someone with massive credit card debt getting a consolidation loan but continuing past spending patterns and even applying for new credit cards. This may seem like a pretty harsh and cavalier analogy for me to make but it matches closely the conclusions of a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) review of the program issued in 2013
To require the protection, management, and control of wild free- roaming horses and burros on public lands. From preamble to PL 92-195
"excess animals" means wild free-roaming horses or burros (1) which have been removed from an area by the Secretary pursuant to application law or, (2) which must be removed from an area in order to preserve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance and multiple-use relationship in that area. From PL-92-195
The Secretary shall cause additional excess wild free roaming horses and burros for which an adoption demand by qualified individuals does not exist to be destroyed in the most humane and cost efficient manner possible.  From PL-92-195
(Emphases added
So how exactly do we move forward on this?  My sense is that herd managers and the public of all opinions need to take to heart the recommendations of the NAS review.  Moreover, people need to look again at the The Wild Free-Roaming Horses  and Burros Act of 1971 (Public Law 92-195) which not only urges the Secretary of the Interior to heed the NAS, but also clearly communicates that the Secretary needs to insure that horse and burro populations do not cause ecological degradation or compromise the multiple-use directives of these lands (see excerpts above).  And all must remember that the Secretary is authorized under this law to take actions to protect, manage, and control wild free-roaming horses and burros on these public lands including the humane destruction of animals that are judged under this process to be excess and where no demand for adoption exists. The Act is fairly simple and straight-forward, but there are problems.
BLM Mission Statement: It is the mission of the Bureau of Land Management to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.
The first set of problems deals with the general and historic weakness of the BLM to properly establish robust monitoring procedures and subsequently enforcing those standards (see HCN article). They have not done this well with cattle or sheep and are continuing that trend for horses and burros. Moreover there is the conundrum of trying to set ecological standards simultaneously for livestock leases, horses or burros, and wildlife all using the same space.  How exactly does one do that? Even if the grazing “pie” was split equally in three parts how does one administrate this fairly and point to the time when one element has had their fill so to speak.  I suspect that this task in not impossible, but it will take some real effort.
“If population density were to increase to the point that there was not enough forage available, it could result in fewer pregnancies and lower young-to-female ratios and survival rates.” NAS Review
Once the above performance standards are established and tested, there is the conflicting direction implied by the NAS comments above about letting nature-take-its-course in terms of habitat degradation depressing the reproductive rate in horses and burros.  This gets problematic when you are dealing with multiple-use as part of the vegetation needs to be reserved for wildlife and, under current law, livestock.   How exactly do you starve one group using grasslands without starving the other two users?

The idea of natural regulation also brings up the whole issue of whether or not the horses are “wild” or feral in the first place.  And yes I have seen the “evidence” of the Carlsbad, California horses and burro —carbon dated to somewhere between 1625-1705. And I do understand that this predates the settlement of the mission system in Alta California in 1769.  My sense is that it is a lot more likely that these animals came from Spanish herds that hit North American in 1540 or soon thereafter than these critters being part of a horse and burro population that survived for nearly 10,000 years without anyone noticing it—not in native languages or in the fossil record.
“Mountain lions require habitats different from those favored by horses, and the committee was unable to find examples of wolf predation on free-ranging horses in the United States.” NAS Review
A further fact to consider in this wild versus feral debate comes from a question that my wife keeps asking me: Why not wolves or cougars as a solution?  The NAS nailed it in their response but this is a more important point than it seems.  The proper question may not be why not wolves, cougars or even bears but rather: If these are wild or native species, where are the co-evolved predator systems associated with horses and burros?  There are really not any and have not been any for about 10,000 years when we lost a number of rather large and pretty horrific cats.

A reconstruction of the American Lion (Panthera leo atrox) thought to have preyed on prehistoric horses in North America.
I mention the above not because I want to diminish those who love horses or support their preservation—even at all costs—but the ecological status of these animals as well as the condition and diversity of their collective gene pools in all of North America need to be material factors that influence future management regimes.  Decisions, strategies and acceptable risks are obviously different for these horses and burros than they would be for black-footed ferrets or other imperiled species with extremely limited gene pools.

We need at this juncture to circle back to the talk in Eugene where we saw some points of agreement. The first was that the current situation was not workable nor was it sustainable.  The second point of agreement that I heard was that solutions—like birth control via PZP or other agents—that happened on the range were most preferable.  These seem to make sense.

It is also instructive here to revisit the credit card and loan analogy.  BLM—in cooperation with independent scientists—has to step up like a credit counselor to develop a defensible method for determining and then monitoring what is essentially an ecological budget for the Herd Management Areas (HMAs).  These strategies for maintaining the horse and burro populations well below some sort of collective, multi-use carrying capacity for the range should also provide adequate margins to deal with the projected impacts of climate change and the droughts that are here now or that loom on the horizon.

Once the above budgets are set for units or blocks of cooperatively managed units (HMAs), then two things have to happen in regards to the long-term storage of horses.  The first is that the flow from HMAs to the long-term pastures has to stop.  Period.  In other words the steely-eyed credit counselor played by the BLM has to draw a line in the sand regarding no new “debt.”  But before there is wide-spread panic and fear of lawsuits, one thing has to be remembered: BLM is most often sued where they have ignored their own laws or regulations or where they have not entered into a visible process to make a decision.   It may seem obvious that the best way to avoid suits is to behave lawfully and not make decisions arbitrarily, but that is evidently lost on some.

Mustangs in Arizona by John Harwood
Now I really do not know what should happen to the animals not adopted.  Under the law, they could be humanely destroyed.  I am not advocating or dismissing that nor am I standing here—plate in hand—in anticipation of equine steaks becoming part of the menu again.  But one thing that I do know is that the existence of this unsustainable option makes it way too easy for the BLM to shirk their responsibilities under the 1971 law.  In addition, this option enables those driven by animal welfare or animal rights to think that pressuring the BLM to maintain in perpetuity these animals is an ethical alternative to developing creative solutions or some sort of acceptable compromise.

The second part of the long-term storage situation is that material steps need to be taken to reduce these herds in captivity.  I am not sure what the trajectory of the reduction has to be but at some point the American public is going to catch on to the fact that $80 million is being spent or roughly $2000 per year per animal in the wild.  This is nearly twice what the horse in the OPB video brought at auction.  I do not have trouble with the government spending money on wildlife or wild places and I do support the presence of these animals in areas where their populations are legitimately and adaptively managed.  But I would much rather see these monies spent in a manner that leads to a sustainable condition than on that which serves no real public good and that makes the situation even worse.

I understand, as I stated in the beginning, that this is a controversial but important topic.  My hope is that once folks get past the vitriolic stage of response that they start offering up creative solutions for this conundrum that will help to get us out of this "rock and a horse place."

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