BLM pushes permanent sterilization as herds grow

Scott Streater, E&E News reporter

Published: Thursday, August 23, 2018 source published last week. Source has a significant paywall. Out of respect for the hard work done at E&E we delayed sharing this article. We normally do not copy entire articles but feel this one should be read. Many believe that Colorado State removing their participation stopped the experiment due to many social media claims. This is important for you to read. If you can afford a subscription to E&E we highly recommend it.    https://www.eenews.net/eenewspm/2018/08/23/stories/1060095113

Important note from WHE before you read the article: Brian Steed, currently the BLM Deputy Director, was the formers Chief of Staff for Chris Stewart (UT-R). BLM has no Director at midterm of this administration and the position formerly help by Neil Kornze, Bob Abbey and others no longer appears on the BLM website. 


The Bureau of Land Management is moving forward with plans to test a permanent sterilization technique on wild mares in Oregon after researchers at Colorado State University abruptly dropped out of the project earlier this month.

Wild horse advocates have ripped the proposed research as dangerous and unnecessary.

BLM two years ago abandoned a similar research project with Oregon State University to study the "safety and effectiveness" of three fertility control methods on wild mares after horse advocacy groups filed federal lawsuits challenging the work (E&E News PM, Sept. 9, 2016).

But BLM this week released an updated draft environmental assessment and finding of no significant impact that outline a partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey on a research project to test spaying as many as 104 mares rounded up from the Warm Springs Herd Management Area in central Oregon.

The revisions were necessary when CSU researchers dropped out after the public comment period for the draft environmental assessment — originally released in late June — concluded earlier this month. CSU did not give a reason for dropping out of the project.

The updated draft EA and finding of no significant impact reflect that the research will continue with USGS and BLM's Burns District office, which will hire outside veterinarians to conduct the surgical sterilizations of roughly 100 mares.

USGS's involvement will be limited to a detailed behavior analysis of the spayed mares, about 34 of which would be returned to the wild with an additional 70 kept at Oregon's Wild Horse Corral Facility near Hines for at least 60 days for post-surgery evaluation.

The draft EA and unsigned finding of no significant impact are now open for public review through Sept. 2, according to the agency.

The research project, slated to begin in October, proposes to test a procedure — called ovariectomy via colpotomy — that involves removing the mares' ovaries.

The surgeries would be conducted by contracted veterinarians familiar with the horse-spaying procedure at the Wild Horse Corral Facility.

BLM said in a press release last month on the proposed research that the spay technique to be tested "is a standard used for domestic horses and is generally considered less invasive than a typical spay procedure used for domestic cats and dogs. The procedure takes fewer than 15 minutes to complete."

BLM plans to round up via helicopter the estimated 852 wild horses within the 475,000-acre Warm Springs HMA, the agency says in the draft EA.

BLM would return about 200 horses to the herd management area, divided into 100 animal segments separated by a fence, so that USGS researchers can "study a control herd segment (no treatment) and a treatment herd segment," the draft EA says.

The sterilization tests are part of a 10-year population management plan BLM had developed for the herd management area. BLM estimates the Warm Springs HMA contains 500 more horses than the established "appropriate management level" — the maximum number of animals that regulators say the rangeland can handle without causing damage to vegetation, soils and other resources.

BLM wants populations within the HMA to be reduced to the appropriate management level of no more than 202 wild horses, the draft EA says.

Wild horse populations within the Warm Springs HMA also need to be reduced, the agency says, to protect the wild horses and burros that live there.

The draft EA cited NOAA data revealing that the region is already in drought conditions and that water and other resources are getting scarce.

"Water availability is presently inadequate to support a subset of the wild horse population in the western half of the HMA, and BLM has begun hauling water to sustain a population of approximately 236 animals in this area," it says.

The EA adds that "severe drought in coming years would likely result in loss of life" across the entire HMA.

What's more, wild horse "competition with native wildlife species for water" and other natural resources could spell big trouble for greater sage grouse, whose populations within the HMA have already declined compared with populations outside it, the draft EA says.

The research, "if proven successful, may provide a much needed tool to the BLM to more effectively manage healthy herds on public lands," Brian Steed, BLM's deputy director for policy and programs, said in a statement at the time the initial draft EA was released.

But the proposal is controversial, and wild horse advocates strongly oppose it.

Laura Leigh, president of Wild Horse Education, called BLM's proposal "an expensive experimental procedure" that is "highly dangerous and scientifically unjustified."

"Managing populations at Warm Springs is not reliant on tearing out the ovaries of wild horses," she said today in a statement.

Wild Horse Education and other advocacy groups want BLM to increase the practice of darting animals with fertility vaccines, specifically porcine zona pellucida, or PZP, which renders mares infertile for roughly a year.

The problem is that it's good for only a year. Mares that have been darted with the PZP vaccine "would either need to be gathered or bait/water trapped every year and retreated with PZP, or mares would need to be located, identified, and successfully darted every year with a booster dose of liquid PZP," the draft EA says.

"Locating, identifying, and successfully darting all individual mares during later winter or early spring annually is logistically infeasible across the vast expanse of most HMAs," it says.

BLM states in the draft EA that PZP would be used as a "population growth suppression" action only if "the results of the spay procedure indicate that spaying is not a feasible management tool for this HMA."

Meanwhile, there are about 82,000 wild horses and burros roaming roughly 27 million acres of federal herd management areas. That's more than three times the appropriate management level.

BLM has taken steps to address the issue, including last month updating an agency policy for selling wild horses and burros to make it easier to purchase bulk numbers of animals (E&E News PM, July 24).

It also established an Online Corral site designed to increase adoptions and whittle down the 46,000 unadopted and unsold horses that BLM is caring for in holding pens and corrals across the West (E&E News PM, May 18).

Congress has also stepped into the debate.

Utah Republican Rep. Chris Stewart added an amendment to a $35 billion spending bill for EPA, the Interior Department and related agencies that would allow Interior to use permanent sterilization to manage growing wild horse and burro populations (E&E Daily, June 7).

Stewart's "chemical or surgical sterilization" amendment is part of the final appropriations bill the House approved this summer.

But it's not in the Senate version of the bill, and congressional observers say it most likely will be removed in a bid to avoid a Senate blockade (E&E Daily, Aug. 15).