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National Research Council probes wild horse program

A wild mare and her foal
A wild mare and her foal
photo by C. Abel

A long awaited contract with the National Academy of SciencesNational Research Council (NAS/NRC) has defined the parameters of a two year project to delve into BLM's handling of their wild horse and burro program. The 3 million dollar project, sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Interior, officially began in June of this year, but information on the project scope has just become available .

A committee of 14 will examine the science, methodology, and technical decision making approaches currently used in Bureau of Land Management's wild horse and burro program. Identifying and prioritizing additional research needs falls last, but not least, on a list of eleven different subjects to be explored.

Included on the list are subjects such as; the accuracy of population counts and the possibility of improved methods, strengths and limitations of the current model used to predict future populations, predator impact on the herds, determining or adjusting the number of animals allowed ( Appropriate Management Levels or AML's), and balancing societal considerations while protecting the land and herd health.

The long term effects on the many herds now thought to have populations below a level needed for genetic viability has been a concern voiced loudly by animal advocates. NRS/NRC participants will explore genetic diversity within the herds and what management actions can be taken to achieve the most favorable level.

Various forms of population control ( i.e. roundups, fertility control, sterilization, and sex ratio adjustments) will also be looked at in regard to their effectiveness and impact on herd health.

Perhaps the most controversial of subjects to be addressed is the managements on non-reproducing populations or herds with a partially breeding population. BLM officials recently backed off on their decision to create a non-reproducing herd in Wyoming by surgically sterilizing wild mares in the field. A plan to castrate males within the same herd was also dropped after a federal judge questioned it's legality.

According to the NRC, "... the study will build on findings of three prior reports prepared by the NRC in 1980, 1982, and 1991 and summarize addition, relevant research completed since the three earlier reports were prepared." Much of the evaluation will depend heavily on information and data provided by the BLM.


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