BLM releases wild horse research plan

By Laura Bies

A new strategic research plan from the Bureau of Land Management calls for increased focus on fertility control options for wild mares. Credit: BLM Oregon & Washington

The Bureau of Land Management released a research plan that aims to chart a new course for wild horse and burro management, using scientific advances to control the feral populations across the American West.

Dubbed the “2021 Wild Horse and Burro Strategic Research Plan,” the document describes the BLM’s goals for its wild horse and burro program, including a plan to use scientific advances like fertility control and new research to address the agency’s management needs.

The BLM estimates more than 85,000 wild horses and burros currently range across 27 million acres of BLM-managed public lands in the western United States. That’s far above the agency’s established appropriate management level of 26,785 animals, the maximum numbers that those public lands can sustain alongside other uses of the lands without damaging vegetation, soils and other resources.

United States federal law guides the management of designated wild horses and burros on select BLM and U.S. Forest Service lands. As an invasive species, horses and burros compete with native wildlife and damage their habitats. The continued overpopulation of horses and burros limits the ability of wildlife professionals to conserve native wildlife species. The Wildlife Society has regularly advocated for federal agencies to reduce free-roaming horse and burro populations on public lands.

The BLM’s highest priority, according to the plan, is “the development of safe, practical and effective, long-lasting fertility control methods for mares.” A secondary priority for the coming years is increased research on the interactions of wild horses and burros with their environment, including how climate change may impact management of the two species. In announcing the research plan, the BLM requested that other federal agencies and others entities submit research proposals regarding these priorities. Dependent on congressional appropriations, the agency plans to make more than $1 million available to support projects that address their two research priorities.

Recent management efforts have focused on reducing herd sizes through increased gathers. In addition to regular gathers over the past few years, the BLM held several emergency gathers over the spring and summer, in response to the drought conditions in the western U.S. that reduced forage and water for the horses. Once gathers help reduce herd sizes in the future, the agency plans to rely more heavily on fertility control measures to keep herd sizes low.

A report prepared by the BLM during the Trump administration, per the request of Congress, relied heavily on sterilization of wild mares to reduce populations, which had also been proposed during the Obama administration. The Biden administration, however, announced earlier this year that it would not pursue ovariectomies, which had elicited an outcry both from wild horse advocates and some members of Congress.

The BLM requested increased funding of $152.6 million for its Wild Horse and burro program in its Fiscal Year 2022 proposed budget—up from $115.7 in FY 2011. While a final appropriations bills has not yet been passed, both House and Senate bills would increase funding for the program—up to $162.093 million and $151.589 million respectively—and would target $11 million of the funding for fertility control.

Read TWS’s Issue Statement on Feral Horses and Burros in North America and watch the Horse Rich and Dirt Poor documentary film.

Laura BiesLaura Bies is a government relations contractor and freelance writer for The Wildlife Society. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science and a law degree from George Washington University. Laura has worked with The Wildlife Society since 2005. Read more of Laura's articles.

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