House Bill Sanctions Surgical Sterilization of Wild Horses

A wide range of equine-related issues have come up in Congress this session, and wild horses in particular have been the subject of considerable deliberation among federal lawmakers.

The House Appropriations Committee included language, sponsored by Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT), in its Department of the Interior spending bill that would push the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to surgically sterilize wild horses and burros. The Senate’s version of the bill does not include such language, so conference negotiations to finalize the spending package for the next fiscal year will ultimately determine whether this provision survives.

Representative Stewart has long argued for allowing the federal government to kill these animals, who are protected under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. So while a mass sterilization approach may seem like a step in the right direction for Stewart (or at least a step away from a terrible direction), it does raise serious questions. The amendment ignores obvious humane fertility control options for managing herds, such as porcine zona pellucida (PZP)—a cost-effective immunocontraceptive vaccine that can be administered safely. Surgical sterilization, on the other hand, entails a risky and highly invasive procedure that causes significant distress to the animal.

The BLM itself has floated a plan to round up by helicopter all wild horses in the Warm Springs Herd Management Area in Oregon, and then force 100 of the captured mares to undergo ovariectomies via colpotomy—a particularly dangerous surgical procedure in which a mare’s ovaries are severed and pulled out while the animal remains conscious, under local anesthesia. The BLM had planned to partner with Colorado State University (CSU) to conduct these surgeries. But after AWI, the American Wild Horse Campaign, and other groups submitted comments and rallied public opposition, CSU announced in August that it would no longer participate—a severe blow to the BLM’s ability to proceed with the plan in the short term.

Proponents of surgical sterilization sometimes argue the process is similar to fertility control methods that have been used to curb populations of other wild animals, such as deer. However, the procedures contemplated here would play out very differently in practice. Deer management has become a significant issue in some US communities, and many local jurisdictions resort to lethal control as the first—and often only—attempt to reduce numbers. In these cases, spaying can provide a viable alternative for animals who would otherwise be killed. Here, on the other hand, we are dealing with animals who are federally protected.

Furthermore, the local nature of such deer-spay efforts, as well as the far more limited geographic area the animals inhabit, allows for more careful monitoring during and after the procedure. (See AWI Quarterly, fall 2014.) From a physiological perspective, tranquilizing deer that weigh only a small fraction of a wild horse and then moving the unconscious animals into an aseptic operating area is very different than what the BLM would be attempting.

Indeed, in its 2013 report on improving the management of wild horses and burros, the National Academy of Sciences stated that ovariectomies are “inadvisable for field application” due to the probability of “prolonged bleeding or peritoneal infection.” For an agency such as the BLM, which routinely informs lawmakers and the public that it does not have sufficient resources and funding to effectively manage wild horses and burros, it is hard to imagine how attempting to implement mass surgical sterilizations would help matters.

If the BLM were to move forward with impractical mass sterilizations and the results fell short for any number of reasons (e.g., cost, logistics, medical complications), the failure could provide the latest impetus for lawmakers to renew a push for the BLM to resort to outright culling of the herds in order to reduce numbers.

Fortunately, that is not currently a legal option. In fact, in more positive news out of Congress pertaining to wild horses, the House and Senate appropriations bills have maintained the strong language that AWI has consistently promoted to prevent sale of wild horses for slaughter. Without such basic legal protections, these horses could easily be “adopted” by anyone looking to make a quick buck by then unloading them into the horrific horse slaughter pipeline that leads to Canada and Mexico.

Even with such a prohibition in place, the BLM—due to its lax oversight—abetted the sale of approximately 1,800 wild horses from 2008 to 2012 to a Colorado rancher who then sold them for slaughter. The buyer, who willfully misstated his intentions in purchasing the horses from the BLM, was not even prosecuted. (See AWI Quarterly, fall 2015.) Following this debacle, the BLM instituted a policy that allowed an individual to purchase no more than four horses at one time, with a wait time of six months per transaction. Unfortunately, in May, the Trump administration quietly reversed the policy, and now allows purchasers to buy up to 25 horses, with no wait time—making it far easier for “killer-buyers” to skirt the law.

The plight of free-roaming horses across the United States is widely known, but the BLM does not appear to be any closer to reaching a satisfactory solution for ensuring that these herds are allowed to thrive in their natural environments. Constant removals are a massive drain on tax dollars, and such efforts perpetuate an unsuccessful model that subjects tens of thousands of horses to inhumane roundups and crowded living conditions.

AWI continues to advocate for the preservation of these animals through legislation that strengthens and augments the protections provided by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, and works to ensure that the interests of livestock producers are not favored over the interests of the wild horses and burros who live on the range.

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