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The BLM and Mustang Population Control
 By Winniefield Park   •   27th Dec 2015   •   3,451 views   •   0 comments
The BLM and Mustang Population Control

In the year 1492, horses returned to the Americas after an absence of several thousand years. These horses arrived in the holds of the first ships to cross the Atlantic Ocean from Europe. Today, there are still feral herds roaming North America that carry the blood of those sturdy Iberian bred horses. Horses escaped, were turned loose or lost, and thrived on the rich grasslands of the mid-west. It’s estimated that within 150 years, there were thousands (likely not millions as often stated) of these Mustangs. The word Mustang comes from the Galacian word for stray or feral animal. Other Europeans followed the Spanish as they settled the continent, each bringing horses from their part of the world and some of these interbred with the Mustangs.

During the 1800s, it’s estimated that numbers declined. Mustangs from wild herds were put to work as North America was colonized. They were the prized mounts of the many ‘horse tribes’ of the midwest, used by ranchers and the military. Many were killed because they competed with cattle for rangeland pasture. By 1900 it’s estimated that there were about two million remaining horses. They were brutally hunted for sport and gathered and slaughtered for livestock and pet food. Their numbers took another hit in the early 1900s when they were recruited to serve in WWI. By 1971, when the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 declaring Mustangs “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” and that they “contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people”1 and are therefore worth preserving, 15,000 Mustangs were left.

Related: Euthanization Imminent for Wild Mustang Herds in Western Utah

The job of preserving these horses was given to the Bureau of Land Management in the United States. In Canada Mustangs are a provincial, rather than federal responsibility and are not recognized as wild animals that could be protected under the Species at Risk Act, but as livestock. And how these herds, and the number or acceptable animals that should be allowed to be roam free has been hotly debated. Some believe that they should not be managed at all. Some would like them completely eliminated. But most believe that their numbers should be controlled, but just how to do this and what a manageable population are equally contentious.

Over the years, the BLM has tried a number of different methods to control the population of Mustangs to an “Appropriate Management Level” that respects the health of the lands the animals live on. There are approximately 47,000 Mustangs now roaming rangeland. The most common and controversial method used since 1978 is gathering using helicopters. Herds are gathered and then horses are either held in holding pens for indefinite periods of time or put up for adoption. While the BLM asserts that long term holding pens are thousands of acres in size, animal activists assert that short term holding pens are very crowded and a short term stay may be years. The BLM has also been accused of sending penned animals to slaughter, even after bill H.R.503 was enacted.

Other methods of population control have been tried, or are still used. A program called Sex Ratio Management is used to return more gelding and stallions back out to the range than mares, slowing down birth rates and extending times between gathers. Contraceptives such as hormone implants, chemical gelding, and intrauterine devices have been tried, with little success. A current program is looking at the effectiveness of a drug that must be implanted either by hand vaccination or by dart gun. The challenges with using the drug is that gathers are still required, or herds must be approachable to get close enough to be accurate with a dart gun. And, the drug in either form has a time limited effectiveness. The BLM states on its website that this program has not been a resounding success.

The BLM has a very difficult task. Not everyone agrees about what is healthy. Not everyone agrees Mustangs should be allowed to roam freely. It is hard to please everyone. The BLM comes under criticism for its methods and mission and must balance a fine line in carrying out its mandate to “ensure and maintain healthy wild horse populations on healthy public lands.”2

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1BLM_Sale_Authority.pdf
2BLM Herd Management.html
http://www.canadiangeographic.ca/magazine/ma05/indepth/
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