Activists shut down wild horse sterilization plan for Oregon |

Activists shut down wild horse sterilization plan for Oregon

The wild horse and burro management program began in 1971, after Congress passed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. When the Act was founded, there were an estimated 27,000 on the range. The program’s annual budget fluctuates around $78 million according to reports.
Photo courtesy BLM

National Wild Horse and Burro Rangeland Management Coalition — Facts of wild horse and burro management on our western public rangelands:

Wild horses and burros are managed by federal law, and are only authorized to be on BLM and U.S. Forest Service lands.

BLM estimates their lands contain over 82,000 horses and burros as of March 1, 2018.

USFS provides a rough estimate of approximately 10,000 horses and burros on their lands.

Free-roaming horses and burros are also present on other federal, state and tribal lands. However, these animals are not “wild and free-roaming” as defined in the federal law, and therefore are managed differently. The total number of free-roaming horses in the United States is likely in the hundreds of thousands.

BLM lands where horses and burros should be managed can only support 27,000 individuals in balance with the ecosystem and other uses of the range. This means there are over 55,000 excess horses and burros, degrading rangelands.

Wild horse and burro populations have a demonstrated ability to grow at 18 to 20 percent per year. This means their populations double every four to five years without proper management actions.

BLM currently uses a mixture of gathers and fertility control options to manage populations. However, these actions an not currently being used to the extent necessary to stop the growth of the horse and burro population, and our rangelands continue to be deteriorated.

Horses and burros gathered by the BLM are held in holding facilities. A small number of them are adopted to private caretakers. The vast majority remain in these facilities, cared for by the BLM. These facilities currently house over 48,000 horses and burros, costing the American taxpayer nearly $50 million per year.

Despite overpopulation and a much-needed management plan for wild horses, a controversial sterilization project gained enough spotlight and legal attention to get the plan shut down, and now has the Bureau of Land Management looking at releasing some of the study mares that were originally rounded up from Oregon’s Warm Springs Herd Management Area (HMA).

The Oregon mare sterilization project had, at different times, two prominent universities on board to help with what was to be a science-based study, but pressure from activists sent them both packing. This glaring spotlight on the iconic wild mustang and the majority of the BLM horse management plans has activist groups waving victory flags, over and over. In 2016 alone, 21 research projects planned to manage wild horse and burro population levels were shut down.

In 2018, Colorado State University, despite the study being supported by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (representing 9,300 equine veterinarians), decided to withdraw from the program due in large part to pressure exerted by wild horse activist groups. In a 2016 similar research study, Oregon State University took the same path, backing down to activist pressure.

On Aug. 8, 2018, CSU’s Vice President for Research Alan Rudolph released an email statement saying, “After careful consideration of multiple factors during the 30-day public comment period for the Warm Springs, Ore., mare spay project, Colorado State University is withdrawing our partnership on the surgical spaying of mares.”

So what now?

The BLM wants to adopt or sell the wild horses it rounded up in Oregon last fall as part of the sterilization research project that has been aborted. They are proposing to return about 66 of the 845 horses gathered, back to the Warm Springs Herd Management Area in central Oregon and will adopt or transfer the other horses to other agencies. Returning just 66 of the horses will keep the herd size under the Warm Springs HMA’s appropriate management level (AML) for the 475,000 acres, which is set at 178 horses and 24 burros.

Now the BLM is seeking public comments on its plan to return a portion of the wild horses back to the range. BLM’s proposed plan is to give the mares and stallions returning to the herd a temporary fertility vaccine, but the vaccine only works for about a year, and costs more per shot, than one sterilization would have.

Protect the Harvest, an advocate of multiple use on federal lands, said the sterilization method is not only the safest, but also the most cost effective. According to researchers, the cost of each 15-minute surgery is about $300, less than one dose of injectable birth control vaccine the BLM now plans to use.


But a number of groups working together, sued to stop the sterilization experiments, calling the surgical procedure outdated, dangerous and inhumane, and in November of 2018, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction. BLM eventually followed in the universities footsteps.

“The BLM’s decision to end its misguided ovariectomy experiments on wild mares in the Warm Springs HMA, and instead employ humane immunocontraceptive vaccines to curb population growth is a welcome outcome for these federally protected horses,” said Joanna Grossman, Ph.D., equine program manager for the Animal Welfare Institute. “We are heartened that these wild and free-roaming animals will not be subjected to an invasive surgical procedure that would put their lives at risk. The agency should, however, return a significant number of the horses back to their range on public lands. With the proper use of PZP, their population can be kept in check.”

While the birth control sounds ideal, it is not without its own complications. The cost to BLM will add to the growing bill this government entity is already battling.

Wild horses and burros have no natural predators, and current adoption rates are decreasing steadily each year, according to BLM statistics. With the dropping rates and minimal to no interventions, the herd population continues to grow.

The current estimated on-range wild horse and burro population (as of March 1, 2018) is 81,951, a 13 percent increase over the 2017 estimate of 72,674 (which doesn’t include animals that were removed as part of a management action). According to BLM, the on-range population exceeds AML by more than 55,000.

At the same time, the BLM continues to care for approximately 51,000 unadopted and unsold excess animals in its off-range corrals and pastures, costing taxpayers $50 million annually — nearly two-thirds of the Wild Horse and Burro Program’s annual budget. The total capacity of all BLM off-range holding facilities is 56,106 animals. BLM adopted out only 4,099 animals in 2017. According to BLM, the rate of adoptions has stayed around that number since 1996, but the number of wild horses and burros on ranges has doubled since 2012.

The wild horse and burro management program began in 1971, after Congress passed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. When the act was founded, there were an estimated 27,000 on the range. The program’s annual budget fluctuates around $78 million according to reports.

Veterinarians and horse enthusiasts argued for the spay project, and have taken it a step farther to educate the public on the safety of spaying mares.


The 2018 Reno Snaffle Bit Futurity showcased not only mustangs, but also spayed mustang mares. Held the week of September 10-16, 2018, the show included the Wild Spayed Filly Futurity presented by Protect The Harvest.

The Wild Spayed Filly Futurity is a unique reined cow horse competition that includes 12 spayed 3-year-old mustang fillies from the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Facility in Burns, Ore., that were auctioned off the year before during the Reno Snaffle Bit Futurity sale. These fillies were purchased by trainers of all backgrounds; from National Reined Cow Horse Association professional trainers like Justin Wright and Lance Johnston, to well-known mustang enthusiasts who were trying their hand at this discipline for the first time.

The Wild Spayed Filly Futurity filled the seats at the Reno Livestock Events Center. At the end of the night Lance Johnston with his mustang, Three Fingers Holly, earned the title of Wild Spayed Filly Futurity Champion, winning a championship buckle, championship saddle Scottsdale Western World and $25,000 sponsored by Lucas Oil. In an interview with Quarter Horse News Lance said: “I’ve been second at every major event except for the World’s Greatest Horseman. Won a lot of money, but never … I was always the bridesmaid. And, finally, I come out to a big event and finally win it, and it took a mustang to do it.”

During the Reno Snaffle Bit Futurity Sale, the 2018 trained spayed, mustang fillies were sold, along with the new group of 2019 Wild Spayed Filly Futurity fillies.

The event, according to Protect The Harvest, reached over 1 million people. The Wild Spayed Filly Futurity is slated to return in 2019 with 11 new fillies. The trainers include NRCHA professionals, non-pro competitors, and well-known mustang trainers.

“The program brings the issue of over-population of wild horses on American rangelands to the attention of people across the nation,” Protect The Harvest, shared in a press release. “It demonstrated spaying as a viable and humane option to control their numbers, and also showed just how trainable and athletic mustangs can be.”

In 2017, 12 selected spayed fillies were offered for sale at the Reno Snaffle Bit Futurity. By the time of the sale, all of the fillies were spayed, vaccinated and handled for 30 days. These fillies were invited back to the 2018 Reno Snaffle Bit Futurity to compete in their own division for a $25,000 purse.

“The goal of the Wild Spayed Filly Futurity is to showcase the significance and abilities of these resilient, tough and beautiful horses,” Protect the Harvest wrote. “It will also demonstrate their trainability and hopefully encourage more people to consider a horse from our American rangelands. A second and very important goal of the program is to help find economical, safe solutions in controlling the numbers of horses on American rangelands which will allow people to appreciate them in a healthy, balanced environment in the wild.”

At presstime, BLM had not responded to a request for comment.

But BLM is busy vamping up adoptions and working on roundup plans. In Montana and the Dakotas, they are seeking public comments regarding the use of motorized vehicles and aircraft. A public hearing was held Feb. 15, on motorized vehicle use to obtain population estimates, collect monitoring information, apply fertility control treatments, transport animals and gather excess wild horses. Before motorized vehicles can be used, a public hearing is required in order to comply with Section 404 of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

In Rock Springs, BLM is planning the first adoption event of 2019, for March 15-16. Approximately 60 wild horses, gathered from the Green Mountain and Stewart Creek herd management areas, will be up for adoption.

While the population continues to grow, both on and off the range, a resolution for some happy medium that would curb costs, improve range and equine conditions, and slow growth has yet to be found. ❖

— Eatherton is a freelance writer from Sundance, Wyo. When she’s not writing, she’s ranching, riding horses or spending time with her grandkids. She can be reached at