Prepared Remarks of BLM Director Bob Abbey at "Summit of the Horse"

Below is the prepared text from which Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey spoke today (Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011) at the "Summit of the Horse," held in Las Vegas, Nevada.  In his remarks, Director Abbey made clear that he has been willing to meet with diverse stakeholders on wild horse management issues.  Recognizing that some organizations take conflicting positions on what is the best way to manage wild horses and burros, Abbey said that is to be expected and welcomed in a nation known for free and open dialogue on controversial issues.

In his remarks, Director Abbey pointed out that the Department of Interior and the BLM have already removed from the discussion table any consideration of the euthanasia of healthy wild horses and the unlimited sale of older horses, even though these legal authorities exist under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 (as amended).  Having taken the position that slaughter is not a viable or acceptable management option, Abbey focused his remarks on the present and future course of the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program, which the BLM is committed to putting on a sustainable track, as called for by the Government Accountability Office in a report issued in October 2008.

In his remarks, Director Abbey noted that two recent reports – one by four independent, credentialed equine professionals and one by the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General – have concluded, without any ideological or political bias, that the BLM’s gathers of wild horses are conducted in a humane manner.  The Inspector General determined that the BLM’s gathers are "justified" and found that the agency "is doing its best to perform a very difficult job."


Prepared Remarks of BLM Director
BOB ABBEY
At the “Summit of the Horse”
Las Vegas, Nevada
Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011

Opening Remarks

Good afternoon.

My decision to be here today has been somewhat controversial to say the least and I have been advised by people, some with good intentions, some who have other personal agendas, to stay away from this conference since they believe my presence reflects badly on the agency that I work for and the 10,000 BLM employees I am fortunate to represent.

For me, this is as good a time as any to speak candidly about our nation’s wild horses and burros which people are so passionate about and rightly so. While we can debate whether modern day horses are native to the West, there is no mistake they are part of our nation’s heritage and deserve to be protected.

There is so much misinformation and discourse regarding the BLM managed wild horse program. I realized that regardless of what I say today, there will be people who are going to believe what they want to believe or what others are telling them to believe.

I had a man and a woman call me at work a couple of Saturdays ago who accused BLM employees of shooting people who were monitoring wild horse gathers. This couple was convinced that government officials were actually going to be killing American citizens and then hiding the bodies. When I asked where they got this information, they informed me they had read it on the blogs and that they had seen pictures supporting such a planned conspiracy. BLM employees have routinely been accused of participating in clandestine operations and taking actions designed to eliminate all wild horses and burros from public lands.

Let me assure you that we haven’t shot anyone nor do we plan to shoot anyone who is monitoring our wild horse gathers. We may ask people to leave an area if we believe there is a safety hazard or if someone disrupts the operation. Some of us have legitimate differences in how we believe wild horses and burros should be managed on public lands and I respect this fact. Yet, it is the BLM’s goal to have healthy and viable numbers of wild horses and burros that remain on our public lands, the very same goal that is supported by most citizens in this country.

As BLM Director, I am committed to meeting with diverse stakeholders – meaning individuals and groups that care about the management of the 245 million acres of public land under the BLM’s jurisdiction. There are many challenges our agency face when managing public lands for multiple uses and there are over 100 laws and many more regulations that direct how these lands and resources are to be managed.

Because of the BLM’s wide array of stakeholders, it is inevitable that individual and groups would and do take conflicting positions on numerous public land issues, including the management of wild horses and burros. These differences of opinion are to be expected and, frankly, welcomed in a democracy whose hallmark is free and open dialogue.

It seems to me our society has lost sight of the need to talk to one another and then work together as best we can to address the common good. I have observed that some interests believe it is to their benefit to use tactics designed to intimidate or ridicule those who might believe differently than they do.

Quite frankly, I have little tolerance for such behavior given the fact that thousands of Americans have died in wars so that citizens in this great country of ours have the right to speak freely and openly even about things we may not agree with.

This is one of the reasons I am here today. Having recently met with wild horse advocates in Sacramento, California, I have demonstrated a willingness to discuss the BLM’s management of wild horses and burros with any organization that is committed to ensuring the health and welfare of these iconic animals, both on and off the range.

My participation in today’s conference allows me to hear different perspectives on wild horse management issues. Yet, I want to be clear about one thing. Secretary Salazar and I have consistently stated since taking on our current roles that we do not support nor are we willing to incorporate into any wild horse or burro strategy that we pursue, the euthanasia of healthy wild horses and the unlimited sale of older horses, even though these legal authorities exist under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, as amended.

Having taken the position that slaughter is not a viable or acceptable management option for America’s wild horses or burros which are removed from BLM managed land, then we must be willing to pursue other alternatives that address the challenges we have when managing wild horses and burros.

And it is important that our proposed actions put the BLM managed wild horse program on a sustainable track, as called for by the Government Accountability Office.

Essentially, with the exceptions I just noted, we have placed everything on the table for discussion. This includes:

  • Taking whatever steps are necessary to ensure an accurate census of wild horses and burros (the methodology we use today to count horses was developed in partnership with the USGS, the most respected scientific agency in all of government).
  • Pursuing more aggressive fertility control strategies to slow the reproduction rate of wild horses and burros on public lands.
  • Making sure that Herd Management Areas are appropriately designated (this includes revisiting land use planning decisions which had zeroed out wild horses in difficult to manage herd areas).
  • Providing greater opportunities for members of the public to volunteer their time in monitoring herds and rangeland conditions.
  • Pursuing public and private partnerships designed to provide appropriate areas for wild horses and burros which are removed from over populated Herd Management Areas.

I have already had talks with Madeleine Pickens, among others, regarding possible wild horse ecosanctuaries. There are still issues to be addressed before any final decisions are made but her idea has merit and deserves serious consideration.

Management Background

Before my confirmation as Director in 2009, I worked for more than 32 years in public service for state and Federal land-management agencies, including eight years as the BLM’s State Director in Nevada, where nearly half the nation’s wild horses and burros roam on BLM-managed lands.

I have spent years working in the West. Here in Nevada, as BLM State Director, I’ve seen these wild horses up close, and they are spectacular. I have also seen the results when there isn’t enough forage or water to sustain them, and that’s an awful thing to see. That's inhumane. We do this because we care about the animals and the land.

There have been many changes in the BLM’s wild horse and burro program over the years and I have watched the program’s costs continue to rise. The biggest change in recent years is the level of scrutiny given to the Wild Horse and Burro Program. I welcome this greater degree of scrutiny because I am confident in the professionalism of the program’s staff. I am also holding BLM contractors to the high standards that apply to our own BLM professionals.

Let me add that, unfortunately, some scrutiny of the program has crossed the line of fair criticisms, degenerating into false allegations, such as assertions that the BLM’s gathers of wild horses are “inhumane.” Two recent reports – one by four independent, credentialed equine professionals and one by the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General – have concluded, without any ideological or political biases, that the BLM’s gathers are conducted in a humane manner.

The Inspector General found, and I quote: “We determined that wild horse and burro gathers are necessary for population controls, as the population cannot be sustained by the land. We also determined that BLM’s gathers are justified and that BLM is doing its best to perform a very difficult job. We did not observe any instance where BLM or its contractors treated wild horses and burros inhumanely. Further, we noted several actions planned to help resolve the ongoing population control issues.”

Where We Are

In October 2008, after a year-long audit, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report that found the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program to be at a “critical crossroads” because of spiraling off-the-range holding cots and our agency’s limited options for dealing with unadopted horses.

These high holding costs – which accounted for more than half of the BLM’s wild horse and burro budget of $63.9 million in Fiscal Year 2010 – have come about for both practical and humane reasons.

On the practical side, the BLM removes wild horses and burros from the range each year to ensure the herd’s long-term viability while protecting important rangelands, including habitat for wildlife and yes, livestock. But this is not a wild horse versus livestock issues as some people would like for you to believe. This is about managing for the health of the land so that we can provide sufficient forage and water for the species that are dependent on the public range. Herd sizes grow at an average rate of 20 percent a year, and thus can double in size every four years without some action on the part of the managing agency.

As it stands now, the on-the-range herd population of 38,400 exceeds by nearly 12,000 the number that the BLM has determined through monitoring can exist in balance with other public rangeland resources and uses.

With regard to the humane aspect of the situation, the cost of caring for an ever-increasing number of unadopted horses is adding to the burdens American taxpayer.

In today’s tough economy, the number of wild horses placed into private care has declined sharply, leaving nearly 38,000 unadopted or unsold wild horses in short-term corrals or in long-term pastures on Midwestern private lands. The resulting high holding costs have put the Wild Horse and Burro Program on an unsustainable course.

Where We are Going

So that’s where we are. The program remains controversial and without pursuing much needed changes, the program’s cost will continue to increase. This is where I am drawing the line. Every dollar allocated to the BLM’s wild horse program is coming out of other important BLM-managed programs. We cannot continue increasing money for the wild horse program while pursuing the age old strategy of just gathering, removing, and holding horses.

Now let me tell you about where we are going.

In response to the GAO report, along with direction from the Senate Appropriations Committee, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and I proposed an initiative in October 2009 that was the first step in the process of developing a new strategy for managing wild horses and burros. We are now in the second phase of that effort, which has involved analyzing and incorporating public input into a “Strategy Development Document” that we posted on our agency’s Website for a three-month review period over the summer. The resulting new management strategy, to be finalized and made public in the near future, will guide the Wild Horse and Burro Program in the years ahead.

The public, through some 9,000 e-mails and letters, gave us feedback during the review period on numerous subjects, such as fertility control; use of the best available science; the adoption program; development of a comprehensive animal welfare program; and program transparency.

Our management strategy which will be released in the next month or two will reflect the public input we received and will set forward a path that will help us, all of us, achieve the sustainability and certainty that is needed in the program. You will need to wait on the release of the strategy to see the specifics of our plans but let me share with you the actions we are already taking that relate to issues of public concern.

With regard to fertility control, our agency announced in November that we will be conducting 11 gathers of wild horses in Fiscal Year 2011 for the primary purpose of applying the fertility-control vaccine Porcine Zona Pellucida, or PZP, to mares. During these gathers, known as “catch, treat, and release,” the BLM will apply PZP to approximately 1,000 mares, which will be treated and then released back to the specific Herd Management Areas from which they were gathered.

These “catch, treat, and release” gathers are an innovative way of working to control the population growth of wild horse herds. If these fertility-control treatments prove successful, we can lengthen the time between some gathers, saving taxpayers dollars by holding down gather and holding costs.

As you may know, PZP, which makes mares temporarily infertile, is not available for commercial use. The BLM uses the PZP vaccine in cooperation with the Humane Society for the United States under Food and Drug Administration rules that apply to research on new animal drugs. This vaccine was first tested on the wild horses of Assateague Island (off the coast of Maryland and Virginia), where a reduction in mare pregnancy rates was observed.

The “catch, treat, and release” gathers scheduled for Fiscal Year 2011 (covering October 2010 through September 2011) will be conducted in Nevada, Idaho, and Utah.

As for use of the best available science, we have already commissioned a study by the National Academy of Sciences that will review previous wild horse management studies and will make recommendations on how the BLM should proceed in light of the latest scientific research.

With regard to the adoption program, our agency is focusing on providing more trained horses to the public. We are considering a proposal from one of our key partners, the Mustang Heritage Foundation, to adopt out 4,000 wild horses a year through its successful “Extreme Mustang Makeover” events and other trainer programs. We will also continue to foster our prison programs in which inmates train wild horses that are then offered to the public for adoption.

As for development of a comprehensive animal welfare program, we are already in the process of strengthening internal and external reviews of the BLM’s animal care and handling practices. As I noted earlier, four independent, credentialed equine professionals recently completed a report that evaluated our handling of animals at three major wild horse gathers over the summer.

The full report, accessible at our national Website (www.blm.gov), made several observations and findings, including the observation that, in general, “horses did not exhibit undue stress or show signs of extreme sweating or duress due to the helicopter portion of the gather….” The report also favorably noted the helicopter’s “precision” in gathering horses and burros, comparing it to the “a dog working sheep.”

As for program transparency, the BLM will continue to post timely and accurate information on our national Website about all facets of wild horse and burro management, including the 2011 gather schedule and real-time results on ongoing gathers. We will also continue to reach out to the public by improving our Website and by making greater use of social media, including Facebook, where we already have more than 20,000 “friends,” including some, I should admit, who are not exactly fans of the BLM.

So that’s a brief summary of where we are and where we are going with the Wild Horse and Burro Program.

Before taking your questions, let me re-affirm that the Bureau is committed to the well-being of America’s wild horses and burros, both on and off the range.  Even though we do not endorse the euthanasia of healthy horses or selling horses for slaughter, we are committed to working with our diverse stakeholders as we strive to balance the competing uses on public lands.