GREEN RIVER -- Federal officials are beginning work on a national strategy aimed at reducing wild horse roundups on public lands in Wyoming, in part through the creation of wild horse preserves in other states.
The new, long-term strategy will take the Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse and Burro Program in an "unprecedented, new direction," BLM Director Bob Abbey said.
Abbey announced Monday the agency is seeking in-depth public comment on a draft strategy document that will eventually implement Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar's wild horse and burro initiative.
"It's a new day and we need a fresh look at the wild horse and burro program," Abbey said in a media release.
"As part of that effort, we want all those with an interest in wild horses and burros and their public lands to consider our initial ideas and offer their own," he said.
Abbey said until the initiative and strategy are finalized, the agency will move forward with scheduled wild horse roundups in the near term.
"While these gathers are necessary in 2010, the BLM will simultaneously be listening to, and working with, those offering other constructive options to fulfilling our mandate," he said.
"Based on the best information the BLM currently has, without these (roundups), the land will suffer, wildlife will suffer and, ultimately, the horses will suffer," Abbey said.
Last fall, Salazar unveiled his proposal for a national solution to restore the declining health of wild horse herds and the rangelands that support them.
The initiative included the possible creation of wild horse preserves on grasslands in the Midwest and East.
BLM officials said the initiative has received wide support from local and state agencies, as well as wild horse advocacy groups.
Patricia Fazio, the Cody-based statewide coordinator for the Wyoming Wild Horse Coalition, applauded the effort to revamp the federal wild horse program, but said she still retains some concern about wild horse preserves.
"I think it's wonderful ... it's long, long overdue and I could not be more pleased," Fazio said in a phone interview Wednesday. "The lack of science in the program has been just horrid."
BLM officials contend wild horses have no natural predators. With an annual reproduction rate of between 15 and 20 percent, the excess animals must be periodically removed from public rangelands to meet population objectives.
Federal biologists estimate there are more than 4,000 wild horses scattered across 16 herd management areas in Wyoming, with most of the state's wild horse populations located in the southwest.
The BLM has set a statewide wild horse population objective of 2,700 to 3,700.
Federal cowboys have captured more than 2,000 wild horses in roundups in southwest Wyoming over the past few years, but populations continue to rebound.
The agency has targeted such areas as Adobe Town, White Mountain, Little Colorado, Salt Wells Creek and the Red Desert complex, among others, for wild horse roundups.
In 2003, after wild horse populations soared upward of 7,000 animals, the state and the BLM signed a "consent decree" dictating that the BLM meet the state's wild horse objective.
The decree calls for wild horse roundups to occur one year after the BLM gathers information that indicates a herd management area is over the BLM's desired population level.
Abbey said when Salazar announced the initiative, the BLM contacted the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution.
The agency asked the independent group to examine how the BLM could best engage the public in creating a new strategic plan for the program.
"We requested the institute's assistance for two reasons ... to let people know that we are committed to working with all stakeholders in a transparent manner, and to encourage an open, positive dialogue with the public," Abbey said.
The BLM used the institute's report to prepare a strategy development document that is out for public review, he said.
Abbey said as part of the strategy, certain topics and options will be off the table, including the euthanasia of healthy excess animals or their sale without limitation in order to protect the animals from slaughter.
He said "other difficult topics and even some controversial options" will be up for discussion.
Those include implementation of a comprehensive animal welfare program, the potential reintroduction of wild horses and burros into herd areas where they currently don't exist, increased use of fertility control or other methods to slow population growth, and opportunities to make more forage available for wild horse and burro use.
Other topics include the establishment of preserves to care for unadopted wild horses, the designation of selected wild horses and burros as "treasured" herds, and opportunities to place more excess animals into private care.
But Fazio said horses in long-term and short-term holding facilities are not good candidates for a return to existing herd management areas after roundups.
"Their wildness has been destroyed, and they are no longer wild horses in the true sense anymore," Fazio said in an e-mail. "They are no longer valid for eco-tourism, as they don't show normal social, organizational behavior, due to sterilization."
She worried about the health of wild horses if they're put into preserves. She noted the animals could be susceptible to disease transmission, hoof problems and overfeeding, among other concerns.
Abbey said the BLM will consider the public's input as it prepares a long-term strategy for the management of wild horses and burros. The BLM strategy will be presented in a detailed report to Congress later this year.
The BLM is accepting comments through July 30.
Contact southwest Wyoming bureau reporter Jeff Gearino at (307) 875-5359 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Fewer adoptions increase herd management costs
Each year, the Bureau of Land Management removes thousands of wild horses and burros from public rangelands across 10 Western states and then offers them for adoption.
The BLM estimates that more than 38,000 wild horses and burros roam BLM-managed rangelands in the 10 Western states.
Unadopted animals are cared for in short-term holding corrals and long-term pastures. Wild horses that are captured during roundups in Wyoming are taken to the BLM's holding facility in Rock Springs.
The agency also has agreements with the Wyoming Honor Farm in Riverton -- a state correctional facility where wild horses are trained by residents -- and with the Mantle Ranch near Wheatland, where wild horses are also gentled and trained.
Because of a sharp decline in wild horse adoptions in recent years -- which federal officials attribute to the economic downturn -- the BLM now maintains approximately 35,000 wild horses and burros in holding facilities, including more than 9,500 in the more expensive short-term corrals.
BLM officials said holding costs were approximately $29 million in 2009.
That was about 70 percent of the total 2009 wild horse and burro program budget of $40.6 million.
In October, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar proposed a national initiative to help restore the health of America's wild horse herds and their habitat.
The initiative was, in part, a response to a 2008 Government Accountability Office report that raised concerns about the wild horse program.
Salazar proposed creating a cost-efficient, sustainable management program spearheaded by the possible creation of wild horse preserves on productive grassland regions in the Midwest and East.
Salazar told congressional leaders with jurisdiction over wild horse issues that he wants to develop "new approaches and bold efforts" to put the wild horse program on a more sustainable track.
A key element of the secretary's plan would designate a new set of wild horse preserves. The lands would be acquired by the BLM and/or its partners, and the wild horse herds placed in these preserves would be non-reproducing.
President Barack Obama's 2011 budget for the BLM requests $75.7 million for the wild horse and burro program, a $12 million increase over the 2010 level.
The budget makes a separate, but related, land-acquisition funding request of $42.5 million for the purchase of land for one wild horse preserve.
-- Jeff Gearino
For more info
The U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution partnered with the Bureau of Land Management to produce a detailed assessment/plan for public outreach efforts for a new federal wild horse and burro program initiative.
The BLM used the Institute's report to develop a draft wild horse and burro strategy development document that is available for public review. Both documents are on the BLM's website at www.blm.gov.