BLM awaits OK on slightly altered fertility plan for wild horse mares

These wild horses were roaming around in August of 2018 in the Stinking Water Herd Management Area, which borders Malheur County. It is about 40 miles northeast of the Warm Springs Herd Management Area where the BLM gathered than 700 wild horses in October of 2018 as part of a spay and behavior research study.

The future of hundreds of wild horses that were part of a roundup south of Hines last fall is still on hold. The Bureau of Land Management - Burns District gathered 813 horses along with 41 burros and two mules in October of 2018 as part of a spay and behavior research study.

But that study was put on hold on Nov. 2, 2018, after a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction after several lawsuits and appeals had been filed, citing a high likelihood that advocates and plaintiffs were likely to prevail. Days later, the BLM announced that it was halting the project.

However, according to a recent email from Tara Thissell, spokeswoman for the Burns District BLM, the agency is still hoping to complete the study and is now waiting on a green light on a slightly revised proposal. In mid-May, the BLM issued an Environmental Assessment which included the same controversial fertility control method: ovariectomy via colpotomy. The proposed spaying procedure has been previously cited by veterinarians as unscientific, inhumane and dangerous, noting that it would result in pain, suffering and potentially life-threatening complications for wild mares.

The main difference between the newly proposed action is that the mares receiving the ovariectomy would not be pregnant, Thissell wrote in the email.

“Otherwise, all aspects of this proposed BLM spay feasibility study and USGS on-range behavioral outcomes assessment would be the same as those proposed in 2018,” according to the agency.

According to the BLM’s latest EA, the cost to perform an ovariectomy via colpotomy is less than one dose of birth control vaccine, which currently must be hand-injected into wild horses and is only effective for one to two years. The agency states that it costs nearly $3,000 to catch-treat-release one mare and associated stallions, also citing that repeated captures could increase risk of injury or death to individual animals.

BLM, through the new Environmental Assessment, “is now analyzing an updated approach to addressing the horses gathered.”

This includes a proposal to evaluate the safety, complication rate and feasibility of spaying the mares. It also proposes allowing the U.S. Geological Survey to evaluate the impacts of spaying on mares and herd behavior once returned to the range as it compares to untreated herds.

The wild horses were rounded up last fall from a 475,000-acre range – the Warm Springs Herd Management Area – with about 30 of them remaining.

To date, no horses have been returned to the area from which they were gathered, nor have any adoptions been made.

About 700 of the wild horses gathered are still in a facility in Hines, according to Thissell.

The original plan was to perform the controversial spaying experiment on many of the wild horse mares starting Nov. 5, 2018, and to return 200 horses that were part of the study to the range. However, the revised plan is to return only about 66 of those wild horses to the range, and they will only be mares, according to Thissell.

Once a decision has been made, the remaining wild horses will “be available to the public for various things,” she said. This includes various activities and events including training programs.

To quell rumors, Thissell said no horses will be headed for slaughter.

“That’s a no. We’ve never been able to do that,” she said, adding that while people might get confused if they see a mustang for slaughter those horses never “come straight from the government,” but might have ended up there from a private party that adopted the animal.

Congressional objection

On June 21, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who co-chairs the Congressional Animal Protection Caucus, led a bipartisan letter signed by 30 members of the Congress to U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

The letter criticized the BLM’s proposal for its fourth attempt to proceed with the controversial surgical sterilization experiments.

“While we understand the BLM’s need to manage populations of wild horses, we are concerned about the rationale behind the decision to employ the ‘ovariectomy via colpotomy’ method as a means of mass sterilization and are seeking clarification as to whether the agency has taken into account some of the unusual circumstances and disconcerting factors surrounding this project,” reads the letter.

In light of the court ruling in November and the following suggested changes to the experiment protocol which “appeared arbitrary and capricious,” the letter writers “urge the BLM to abandon plans to pursue these experiments.”

The letter cites a 2013 report by the National Academy of Sciences which “explicitly warned” against ovariectomy via colpotomy on wild horses, noting “prolonged bleeding or peritoneal infection” made the surgery “inadvisable for field application.” The report also indicating complication rates may be higher than expected.

The U.S. representatives say that the current proposal is “substantially similar to and indeed attempts to revive portions of previously discarded proposals.”

Twice in recent years, universities have withdrawn from the project, this includes Oregon State University in 2016 and Colorado State University in 2018.

In the case of OSU, after it was announced the project was to occur at the wild horse corrals in Hines, and after a successful lawsuit required the BLM to provide public observation in accordance with the First Amendment, the OSU researchers withdrew and the project was cancelled.

In the case of CSU, the university withdrew after the 30-day public comment period regarding the project. University officials stated that although “wild horse and burro overpopulation is a critical animal welfare issue,” recent studies showed promising information about a birth control vaccine for wild mares. The university stated that it was committed to “continue to pursue alternatives that address wildlife welfare issues.”

The letter writers request Bernhardt “shed light on the BLM’s reversal and new decision to push forward with the ovariectomy project — after three failed attempts to undertake the surgical sterilization experiments, as well as the decision to forgo working closely with an academic institution for the purposes of conducting this study.”

Furthermore the Congressional letter to Bernhardt states that while the 1971 Wild and Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act charges the BLM with protecting wild horses, the spay experiments “raise serious concerns” from a welfare perspective.

The letter urges the BLM to “drop this controversial plan and instead actively pursue humane and scientifically-supported fertility control projects” for the federally protected wild horses.

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