A wild stallion protecting his harem photo / Carrol Abel
Questions and controversy fly on the heels of Thursday's proclamation by Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director Bob Abbey of a "new day and fresh look at the wild horse and burro program". Abbey is requesting public input concerning a Strategy Development Document designed to implement Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's Wild Horse and Burro Initiative which is to be presented before Congress this coming September.
Though the announcement came as a surprise to many, it follows in the wake of a process which began late last year. The U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution (ECR), an independent federal agency, was contracted by the BLM to assess the ongoing conflict between the Bureau and stakeholders in the management of wild horses on public lands. In order to ensure an unbiased report, ECR then hired Kearns and West, an agency with no connection to the federal government, to do the assessment. Conflict resolution was specifically geared toward effective public engagement in Secretary Salazar's initiative.
The ECR process involved gathering information from a variety of prospective stakeholders, assessing that information, and presenting a series of recommendations to the BLM. Though BLM is not bound by these recommendations, it is hoped they will use them as guidelines with which to accomplish their goal. Thursday's call for public input was apparently BLM's first step in implementing the recommendations. ECR's report was released simultaneously.
BLM has also scheduled a round table discussion of defined issues a day prior to the Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board meeting which takes place in Colorado on June 15. Both the round table and the meeting are open to the public. The burning question is, " Will these be the only steps taken toward public engagement and commitment to public opinion?" The answer is not immediately evident.
Animal advocates are a bit saddle sore from past relations with BLM. Trust is in short supply. The proclamation of a new day dawning was delivered with mixed messages wrapped in a pretty package.
BLM's now double-duty director ( recently assigned to handle the mess at Mineral Management) suggests round table topics such as the potential reintroduction of wild herd into areas where they currently don't exist and opportunities to make forage more available to them. Both of these topics address suggestions that advocates have been making for some time.
The announcement also says, " The euthanasia of healthy excess animals or their sale without limitation to protect the animals from slaughter" is a topic of discussion and an option that will be off the table. Dean Bolstad, National Program Division Chief, confirmed interpretation of this wording to mean that the topic will not be included in the Secretary's initiative.
In addressing perhaps the most controversial of subjects, BLM's announcement stated, "Abbey clarified that the BLM will move forward with scheduled gathers in the near term." It goes on to quote Abbey as saying, " Based on the best information the BLM currently has, without these gathers the land will suffer, wildlife will suffer, and ultimately, the horses will suffer."
Though Abbey was not available to spell out the meaning of " in the near term", Bolstad defined this as any gathers currently scheduled or in the planning stages and mentioned the possibility of roundups and removals continuing into 2011.
A cross section of stakeholders interviewed in the ECR process, including past and present BLM employees, cited scientific expertise, data gaps and research issues as a low priority within the management of the program. These are the very things used to determine the need to remove horses from the range. Advocates question a decision to continue the removals " based on the best information the BLM currently has."
According to BLM's published gather schedule for FY 2010, around 8,000 additional wild horses and burros are yet to be rounded up in FY 2010. These will add to the roughly 5,000 already gathered. Note: the 1,922 horses recently gathered from the Calico Complex do not appear on either of these documents. The schedule for 2011 is not available at this time.