Wild horse roundups: Embattled BLM's Robert Abbey vows to overhaul program

Days after Congress slashed $2 million from the Bureau of Land Management's budget in response to public outcry over its wild horse roundups, BLM director Robert Abbey announced that the agency was "accelerating" reforms to the program, including reducing the number of mustangs removed from the range and redoubling efforts to treat the iconic animals humanely.

In a telephone press conference with reporters Thursday, Abbey revealed that the BLM plans to reduce the number of horses "gathered" from public lands in 2011 and 2012 from 10,000 to 7,600 a year, while increasing the use of fertility controls to maintain herd levels. The agency says the total number of wild horses currently on the range is roughly 10,000 more than the resources can support -- a figure strongly disputed by mustang advocacy groups.

"As we all know, this program is very costly to the American public," Abbey said. "If we can manage the wild horses on the rangeland, we will continue to do so."

The relocation program has been widely criticized not only for its cost -- there are now at least as many horses in holding pens and pastures run by private contractors as there are in the wild -- but for mistreatment of the animals during roundups; scenes of horses and burros being abused by handlers and run to exhaustion by helicopters have incensed lawmakers and prompted lawsuits challenging BLM's management of the herds.

Abbey insisted that reforms have been under discussion for some time and are not a response to the recent fiscal reprimand by the U.S. House of Representatives. However, he also conceded that one idea floated by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in 2009, a proposal to relocate the horses to "preserves" back East to promote ecotourism, is no longer being considered. The so-called Salazar Initiative (dubbed "Salazoos" by opponents) would have cost $92 million just for the acquisition of the new horse ranches.

"Based upon the comments we received, it was very evident to us that the public did not like that idea," Abbey said.

Response to Abbey's announcement among animal welfare groups was generally positive but cautious. Matt Bershadker, a senior vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), issued a statement noting that "more than 15,000 wild horses and burros are still slated for round-up over the next two years, adding to the tens of thousands of wild horses currently languishing in long-term holding pens. However, we are encouraged that the BLM is taking the necessary steps to correct its inhumane and fiscally irresponsible policies before these iconic horses are completely eradicated."

To get additional details about planned changes to the wild horse management program, click here.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "More wild horse roundups (and protests) in the works."

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