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.
More from our News archive circa April 2011: "Wild horse roundups: Judge okays lawsuit as accounts of abuse pile up (VIDEO)."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.