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Update
Horse Ills
A controversial new effort aims to protect the Wild West.

On December 28, despite widespread protests and an unsuccessful lawsuit, the federal government launched a roundup of 2,500 wild horses in an attempt to keep the iconic animals’ numbers in check. Using helicopters, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials forced mustangs in Nevada into holding pens before putting them up for adoption or sending them to long-term federal corrals. While the agency has removed horses a few hundred at a time for decades, this latest move was part of an aggressive new strategy Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced in October 2009 to ramp up roundups and relocate two-thirds of the estimated 37,000 free-ranging horses in the West to newly constructed pens in the Midwest and East.

The BLM insists the approach is essential for managing feral herds, which can double their population in just four years. The creatures can wreak ecological havoc, stripping habitat of vegetation that other species, like sage grouse and pronghorn antelope, rely on, and exposing themselves to mass starvation (see “Horse Sense,” September-October 2006). Furthermore, demand for mustang adoption has plummeted—from 5,700 in 2005 to fewer than 3,500 last year—creating a glut of 34,000 horses in BLM holding pens. “It’s mythology that horses will maintain their populations on their own,” says Brian Rutledge, director of Audubon Wyoming. “In that process we lose all the other sagebrush denizens.”

The proposed policy, which will cost $64 million and requires Congressional approval, has enraged some activists. Chasing horses with helicopters is “government-sponsored cruelty,” says Ginger Kathrens, head of horse advocacy group Cloud Foundation, who thinks the proposed “Sala-zoos” just constitute more costly pens for the free-ranging animals.

BLM spokesman Tom Gorey says the “more salient” aspect of Salazar’s plan involves addressing population growth rates at their source. By removing thousands of horses now, says Gorey, ultimately the agency won’t have to add to holding pens and will round up only as many mustangs as can be adopted. Financially, that’s crucial: Holding costs took up 70 percent of the $40.6 million BLM wild horse program budget last year.

The Humane Society of the United States agrees with the agency’s end goal of a sustainable wild population but says the BLM should employ other tactics, such as contraception. The Society supports administering PZP, a contraceptive injected every 22 months that allows mares to breed but not conceive. The approach has worked for the National Park Service on Assateague Island since 1994, and the BLM has given PZP to more than 2,400 mares. But “it’s not like Assateague, where you can go out and dart them on a tiny little island,” Gorey says of the BLM’s 32 million acres. “Logistically and administratively, it’s not an easy task.”

Still, Salazar’s plan, which also calls for aggressive fertility control and managing sex ratios in free-roaming herds, is heartening, says Holly Hazard of the Humane Society. “They cannot gather enough horses in perpetuity [to] solve this problem.”

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