Now that the federal government has taken equine slaughter off the table as a possible way to address wild and domestic equine over-population, it is only fair to ask the question of how do we now deal with more horses and burros than either the market or the environment can handle?
As horse lovers will agree, proud and noble creatures like equine must be given due consideration when it comes to managing their health and well being. While domestic equine slaughtering has not been a real threat since the last horse slaughterhouse was closed nearly seven years ago, the possibility and interest expressed in opening new slaughterhouses over the last year or so sparked an outcry that only ended when the feds finally decided the issue was too controversial to approve.
But taking the operation of equine slaughterhouses off the list of acceptable alternatives of how to humanely manage wild and domestic horse and burro populations hasn't helped solve the problem, and to be fair, it may have actually contributed to the urgency of alternative control measures.
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While the issue of how to manage unwanted or over-populated equine was an emotionally explosive issue in recent times, it wasn't just the slaughter aspect that had many horse and wildlife lovers on edge. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has been under fire for annual horse roundups and relocation programs as well as potential harm or death to animals.
BLM has even been named in lawsuits as animal activists ratcheted up legal pressure through the courts and even engaged in disrupting animal roundups.
These types of protests and lawsuit options have caused BLM to step back from roundup operations over the fear of further litigation and/or the possibility that well-intentioned protestors could be injured attempting to interfere with what has been termed a dangerous operation.
Drought intensifies problem
While concern for unwanted or over-populated wild and domestic equine is a noble gesture, it should be noted that over-population now has become more intense, and with the advent of another dry summer, wildlife managers are warning that animal deaths from lack of water and food resources could spiral, bringing to these animals a slow death, perhaps worse than slaughter.
Issues that result from over-population are beginning to gain more recognition. New Mexico legislators recently voiced intent to attempt an increase in the amount of state tax funds available to state agencies that must deal with abandoned equine and manage wild herds. In addition, BLM is also soliciting support and asking universities, animal groups and the general public for ideas on how to best handle an equine over-population crisis.
According to the BLM website, the agency estimates that 40,605 wild horses and burros are roaming BLM-managed rangelands in 10 Western states, based on early 2013 data. Wild horses and burros have virtually no natural predators when healthy and their herd sizes can double about every four years. As a result, the agency feels it is necessary to remove thousands of animals from the range each year to control herd sizes.
The estimated current free-roaming population of wild equine exceeds by nearly 14,000 the number the BLM has determined can exist in balance with other public rangeland resources and uses. The maximum appropriate management level (AML) is approximately 26,677.
Off the range, as of March 2014, some 48,812 other wild horses and burros were being fed and cared for at short-term corrals and long-term pastures—a total of 15,707 animals in short-term holding and 33,105 horses in pastures. The combined figure of 48,812 animals in holding compares to the BLM's total holding capacity of 52,083 animals.
All wild horses and burros in holding, like those roaming Western public rangelands, are protected by the BLM under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. While the act is no doubt a noble and needed rule, it has not and perhaps can not protect the growing number of equine.
For example, to help ensure that herd sizes are in balance with other public rangeland resources and uses, the BLM says it was necessary to remove 4,176 equine from the range in Fiscal Year 2013. This figure compares to 8,255 animals removed from the range in FY 2012.
The Bureau placed 2,671 animals that had been removed from the range into private care through adoption in FY 2013—less than half as many as a decade ago when 5,701 were adopted out in FY 2005.
Crunching the numbers makes it obvious that since the Act became law in 1971, BLM has been losing the war of equine management, and drought conditions in recent years have only escalated problems.
While the idea that roundups and relocations are in some way harmful to animals is a real concern, nonetheless, BLM and other wildlife groups warn that to do anything less would be the greater injustice and could do more harm to the animals than inaction.
BLM put it this way: A moratorium on all BLM gathers of herds is untenable given the that herds grow at an average rate of 20 percent a year and can double in size every four years, meaning that in just a short time herds will greatly outnumber resources and will then be subject to a slow, suffering death from starvation, depleted resources, and predators that will arise to feed on the injured and unattended young.
BLM is asking for help. They are seeking qualified research proposals on methods and ways to control wild equine populations that roam public lands and want experts who have project proposals aimed at creating new or improving existing techniques and establishing protocols to step forward now.
The Agency is hoping to interest veterinarians, scientists, universities, pharmaceutical companies and other researchers to help develop the best possible non-invasive methods of controlling equine populations with the least amount of impact on wildlife, the environment, and natural ecology of America's rangeland.
For a study of various methods that have been tried and tested and how each fares as an alternative to range roundups, read a warehouse of information compiled by the website Wild Horse Education.