RENO, Nev. - A scathing independent scientific review of the U.S. government's management of wild horses concludes the continued emphasis on mustang roundups to help protect the public rangeland is doomed to financial, social and political failure. In short: it's probably time to let nature cull the herds.
A 14-member panel assembled by the National Science Academy's National Research Council, at the request of the Bureau of Land Management, concluded BLM's removal of nearly 100,000 horses from the Western range over the past decade is probably having the opposite effect of its intention to ease ecological damage and reduce overpopulated herds.
By stepping in prematurely when food and water supplies remain adequate, and with most natural predators long gone, the land management agency is producing artificial conditions that ultimately serve to perpetuate population growth, the committee said Wednesday in a 451-page report recommending more emphasis on a variety of methods of fertility control to keep horse numbers in check.
The research panel sympathized with BLM's struggle to find middle ground between horse advocates who say the federally protected animals have a right to be on the range and livestock ranchers who see them as unwelcome competitors for forage. It noted there's "little if any public support" for allowing harm to come to either the horses or the rangeland itself.
"However, the current removal strategy used by BLM perpetuates the overpopulation problem by maintaining the number of animals at levels below the carrying capacity of the land, protecting the rangeland and the horse population in the short term but resulting in continually high population growth and exacerbating the long-term problem," the report said.
"As a result, the number of animals processed through holding facilities is probably increased by management," the panel said, adding that "business-as-usual" will be expensive and unproductive. "Addressing the problem immediately with a long-term view is probably a more affordable option than continuing to remove horses to long-term holding facilities."
The report is sure to stir controversy among various interest groups that have promoted everything from a moratorium on all horse roundups to legalizing the sale of gathered mustangs for slaughter. The conflict has raged for decades but has intensified in recent years for cash-strapped federal land managers with skyrocketing bills for food and corals and no room for incoming animals.
The number of animals at holding facilities surpassed the estimated number on the range in 10 Western states earlier this year for the first time since President Richard Nixon signed the Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.
Although the scientific panel questioned the accuracy of the numbers, a recent BLM report shows 49,369 wild horses and 1,348 wild burros were being housed in government corrals and pastures. The report said 31,500 wild horses and 5,800 burros remained in the wild - about half of them in Nevada.
"No one really wants to see more horses in long-term holding just from an economic viewpoint," said Guy Palmer, a pathologist from Washington State University who chaired the research committee. "Secondly, this is not the vision that is associated with what the public wants to see with the horses on these wild lands."
Compounding the problem is a horse census system and rangeland assessment practice rife with inconsistencies and poor documentation, the committee said, noting a previous NRC committee charged with the same task reached the same conclusion 30 years ago.
"Record keeping needs to be substantially improved," the report said.
Panel members who began the review in June 2011 said they found little scientific basis for establishing what BLM considers to be appropriate, ecologically based caps on horse numbers and even less basis for estimating the overall population itself.
"It seems that the national statistics are the product of hundreds of subjective, probably independent, judgments and assumptions by range managers and administrators," the report said.
BLM's current population estimate likely is anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent short of the true level, the report said.
The agency averaged removing 8,000 horses from the range annually from 2002 to 2011. Last year, it spent 60 percent of its wild horse budget on holding facilities alone, more than $40 million, the committee said.