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Abel: Moratorium on Horse Gathers Is Essential

Management of America’s wild horses and burros has captured headlines in recent months.

[IMGCAP(1)]Escalated removals of wild herds from the West are categorized as necessary by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management officials. In a recent article, BLM Director Bob Abbey cited the need to “protect wildlife habitat, the horses themselves and the public rangelands from the environmental effects of herd overpopulation” as reasoning behind what appears to be a mad rush to clear the herds from publicly owned Western rangelands.

There are four elements involved in deciding how many animals are “excess,” thus satisfying criteria for their removal: current population, appropriate management levels, rangeland health and multiple-use requirements. Sound decisions on how many mustangs are to be removed, if any, and how frequently the gathers occur must be justified by solid science. The BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program is fraught with scientific uncertainty associated with these critical management assumptions.

Animal welfare advocates are not alone in questioning the science behind the massive wild horse and burro removals currently in contention. The Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General released an evaluation report in April titled “Interior Lacks a Scientific Integrity Policy.” It states, in part, that “without policies to ensure the integrity of its scientific research, Interior runs the risk that flawed information will reach the scientific community and general public, thereby breaching the public’s trust and damaging Interior’s reputation. The time for a comprehensive scientific integrity policy at Interior is, therefore, long overdue.”

Establishing appropriate management levels for wild horse and burro populations is an example of scientific integrity lost. A 2008 Government Accountability Office report states that the bureau “has not provided specific formal guidance to field offices on how to set AML.” Equitable multiple-use policies also come into question with GAO findings that 27 percent of BLM field offices in its survey did not consider data from actual forage use by livestock when setting appropriate management levels. Clearly, the ability to properly determine appropriate management levels with current methods is questionable.

The U.S. Institute of Environmental Conflict Resolution was recently hired by the bureau to develop an effective strategy to engage the public in Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar’s Wild Horse and Burro Program. Published findings in April cite the National Research Council’s 1982 perspectives on “data gaps, the role of social factors in decision making, the persistence of conflict over values, and research priorities,” as remaining relevant today. Its extensive interviews with BLM employees show internal skepticism, as revealed in the following statement, “BLM hiring and staffing for the program does not reflect a priority on scientific expertise. The questions, data gaps, and research issues identified by the committee as priorities to support effective management do not appear to have been addressed.”

Abbey’s announcement in June of an “unprecedented new direction” for the Wild Horse and Burro Program and the request for public comment on Salazar’s new initiative was met with a degree of hope from animal welfare advocates. But the June publication of the bureau’s handbook on wild horse and burro management shattered that optimism.

The handbook, which is the first of its kind and was undoubtedly in its final stages when Abbey made his announcement, quotes the legal requirement for maintaining a wild horse’s free-roaming behavior — but provides for their removal should they migrate from their designated areas. Further damaging public trust, the creation of nonreproducing herds on their home range — a decision that was supposed to come after September’s closure of public comments — has already been made and is outlined in the document.

The Data Quality Act of 2001 was passed to ensure and maximize the quality, objectivity, utility and integrity of information disseminated by federal agencies. Published guidelines for the BLM state, “Information presented or submitted to Congress, which is simultaneously disseminated or previously disseminated to the public is exempt from these Data Quality Act guidelines.” Lawmakers and their constituents concerned about wild horse issues should ask questions — and then further question the answers given.

The bureau’s past actions give the impression of an attitude of omnipotence. By all appearances, the agency has disregarded recommendations from the GAO, Office of the Inspector General and the National Research Council pertaining to the Wild Horse and Burro Program.

Congress now shoulders the moral obligation and the responsibility to intercede on behalf of the American public. A nonpermanent moratorium on wild horse and burro roundups and removals, barring emergency conditions, is an appropriate action at this historic crossroad. Review of the scientific evidence on which wild horse and burro policies are based is crucial to the well-being of America’s wild herds — and the re-establishment of public trust.

Carrol Abel is president of the Hidden Valley Wild Horse Protection Fund.