Wild horses: The bad science behind BLM's management plan

A long-awaited report by the National Academy of Sciences on the federal government's efforts to manage herds of wild horses across the West is finally out, and it confirms what mustang advocates have been saying for years: The Bureau of Land Management program is poorly managed, relies on an unsustainable series of roundups to control the population that's left thousands of horses in costly holding pens, and needs a major overhaul.

Under former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, the BLM ramped up its efforts to remove "excess" horses from the range and dithered over a doomed $100-million plan to acquire "preserves" for captured horses in the East and Midwest. But the NAS study gently suggests that the BLM was using fuzzy math to estimate horse populations and has no real idea how many are out there, let alone how to control the growth of the herds.

In general, the report calls for the agency to take a more "rigorously scientific" approach to herd management and to more seriously consider birth control -- and public input, which has largely been ignored. But perhaps the most startling finding is that, in true government fashion, the BLM may have accomplished the opposite of what it set out to do. Its methods of thinning the herds have probably helped encourage population growth.

"Free-ranging horse populations are growing at high rates because BLM's removals hold populations below levels affected by food limits," the report's authors note. "If population density were to increase to the point that there was not enough forage available, it could result in fewer pregnancies and births and lower young-to-female ratios and survival rates. Decreased competition for forage through removals may instead allow population growth, which then drives the need to remove more animals. "

Of course, letting nature take its course in the open range is considered bad public relations (and bad for the range, though there doesn't seem to be evidence that the horses are tearing up things up the way the BLM and livestock interests claim). But the BLM's alternative has become an endless loop of futility.

Here's a look at the report in brief.

BLM Wild Horse Report in Brief

More from our News archive circa April 2011: "Wild horse roundups: Judge okays lawsuit as accounts of abuse pile up (VIDEO)."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast