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Scientific review criticizes government roundups of wild horses

There is a battle brewing over America's wild horses: Are they in need of protection, or a menace costing taxpayers millions of dollars every year? NBC's Lisa Myers reports on the crisis within the government's wild horse program.

An independent scientific review of the U.S. government’s management of America’s iconic wild horses is highly critical of the current policy of rounding them up, removing them from the range and placing thousands of mustangs a year in captivity. The at times scathing report by a 14-member panel assembled by the National Academy of Sciences says “business as usual” is expensive and unproductive, and recommends instead that horses be managed on the range, with much greater reliance on birth control.

The report did not specifically address the controversy over wild horse “gathers,” as the roundups are known, in which helicopters are used to chase mustangs out of the mountains and into a trap. But it did suggest the Bureau of Land Management end the controversial practice of removing thousands of mustangs every year from the wild and putting them in holding facilities. There are now about 50,000 once wild horses in captivity and an estimated 32,000 left in the wild.      

“The goal would be to manage horses better on the range so that any numbers of horses that would be taken off would be matched with the adoption demand, which is not the current case. The numbers taken off far exceed the adoption demand.” said Guy Palmer of Washington State University, who chaired the panel.


Advocates for the wild horses celebrated the report, one calling it a “turning point” in their fight. “The NAS report is a powerful validation of what wild horse advocates have been saying for years – that the BLM’s ‘business as usual’ is expensive, unproductive and must change,” said Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign (AWHPC). “The report delivers a strong case for an immediate halt to the roundup and removal of wild horses from the range, an increase in wild horse and burro population levels and implementation of in-the-wild management using available fertility control options.”

Related story:

Cruel or necessary? The true cost of wild horse roundups

Neda DeMayo, president of another wild horse advocacy group, Return to Freedom, said the report provides Interior Secretary Sally Jewell with a clear roadmap “for a fiscally responsible and transparent program that will ensure our wild horses and burros remain on their rangelands.”  The wild horse program now costs taxpayers $80 million a year, and is often criticized as inhumane.  

The report also suggested there is little scientific basis for many of the decisions by the BLM, the agency charged with running the Wild Horse and Burro Program. “What the committee is saying is the science can be markedly improved,” Palmer said.

The BLM said it welcomes the report.

“The BLM shares the committee’s view that although no quick or easy fixes exist to this pressing issue, investments in science-based management approaches, exploring additional opportunities for population control and increased transparency could lead to a more cost-effective program that manages wild horses and burros with greater public confidence,” said Neil Kornze, BLM principal deputy director.

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