Are Free-Roaming Equids Good for the West? (hosted by TWS)

The Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (Act) of 1971 (Public Law 92-195) to provide for the management and protection to all free-ranging wild horses (Equus ferus caballus) and burros (E. asinus) on public lands. The Act declared that all “wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.” The Act further directed the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture (the Secretaries) to “maintain thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands.” Thriving natural ecological balance was set by the Bureau of Land Management at an appropriate management level (AML) of 26,715 animals that included 23,622 horses and 3,093 burros occupying 270 herd management areas consisting of 31,600,000 acres of federal lands across 10 western states. In 2017, the BLM estimated that 13,191 burros and 59,483 horses and 13,191 burros inhabit U.S. public rangelands with 45,235 additional horses and 1,196 burros in ‘off-range’ holding facilities. Most stakeholders agree that if the current management policies continue, the impacts to fragile western rangelands, feral equids, native wildlife and their habitats, and humans will intensify resulting in irreversible consequences.The purpose of this symposium/workshop is to summarize the history and contemporary management status of feral equids from ecological, sociological, biological, economic, legal, legislative, and political perspectives leading to increased dialogue regarding policies and processes to resolve management impasses.

8:00AM BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program Update and Management Responsibility
  Alan Shepherd
The Bureau of Land Management manages wild horses and burros on designated herd management areas on public lands in ten western States. This talk will outline the legal and policy framework that guides BLM management and the measures that BLM takes to protect and manage these species on and off the range. BLM strives to manage for healthy herds on healthy rangelands, as part of its multiple use and sustainable yield resource management mission. In cases where populations of wild horses and burros exceed targeted appropriate management levels, BLM works to place excess animals in good homes through an adoption program. Today, population growth is greater than adoption demand. As of March 1, 2019, BLM estimated that there were over 88,000 wild horses and burros on BLM lands, while the appropriate management levels were approximately 27,000. Nearly all of the 177 herd management areas are overpopulated. Approximately 46,000 unadopted and unsold animals are currently maintained off-range at an annual cost of $50 million. Because of the high cost of holding animals off-range, the number of animals that can be removed from the range is limited, and the on-range population continues to grow exponentially, at rates up to 20% per year. BLM is supporting research into long-lasting contraception methods that may reduce population growth, but BLM faces difficult challenges in managing wild horses and burros.
8:20AM New Management Considerations and Successes for USFS Free-roaming Equids
  Laura Snell
In Modoc County, located in northeastern California there is a high elevation sage-steppe rangeland ecosystem heavily populated by free roaming equids and managed primarily by the United States Forest Service known as the Devil’s Garden. Free roaming equids have significantly exceeded (roughly 3000 equids) appropriate management levels (206-402 equids) in recent years and expanded their range outside of the designated territory (258,000 acres) and on to private and tribal lands (over 450,000 acres). Two helicopter gathers in recent years have removed over 1000 equids from the Devil’s Garden. Due to the extensive collaboration between the United States Forest Service – Modoc National Forest, and local partners, many of these equids have found new homes. Older equids (most over ten) were kept at the new Double Devil Corral outside of Alturas, CA and younger equids were transported to the Bureau of Land Management Litchfield corrals. Older equids over 10 years of age were offered for sale with limitations for $25 for 30 days and then for $1 each. Younger equids were offered for adoption three times and then offered for sales with limitations. A robust social media campaign ran by volunteers has created a brand for the Devil’s Garden equids and educated the public on the declining range condition and equid health. Up to date photos of available equids are available on Facebook and a Modoc National Forest online adoption page. People are also encouraged to share their pictures and stories. Volunteers matched potential adopters and buyers with transportation options for cross country transportation and some funding for transportation of large groups of equids was provided. Current status of the program will be shared and future management plans.
8:40AM Free-roaming equids and human emotions: merging ecology and psychology
  Derek Scasta
Feral horses in several countries have become a contentious issue for animal welfare and biological conservation due to their burgeoning populations. These animals occupy a unique position socially due to their mega-faunal nature and concomitant feral status. Consequently, the emotions that humans express for horses can escalate levels that hinder administrative actions — an issue that could have implications for other flora and fauna. While human emotions are important for resource management as motivation enhancing awareness and action, emotions may hinder management due to a lack of reconciliation with data. For the emotions surrounding feral horse management, I conducted a critical review of the history of horse domestication, the contemporary understanding of the psychology of human-horse relationships, and the current status of feral horse ecology and management. Domestication of horses ∼5500 years ago in Eurasia coupled humans with horses in a symbiotic relationship where the two functioned almost as one. This process enabled the spread of human genes and food production. Human reliance on horses became a working relationship founded on trust and respect that facilitated bonding via overcoming adversity that likely deepened human-horse emotional connections – a coevolutionary process for which there are few analogous examples. While human reliance on horses has waned in developed countries recently, it has been humans that have largely facilitated the spread of horses through space and time. Contextualized with contemporary data, feral horse populations in the United States and Australia have increased dramatically. Consequently, horses have had negative effects on native ecosystems in some areas, and degradation has led to emaciated horses in some areas. The public often expresses opposition to horse management, likely out of an innate emotional reaction. However, the emotional co-evolutionary history, coupled with cognitive appraisal of data including welfare, deescalate this contentious issue.
9:00AM Policies Affecting the Management of Free-Roaming Equids
  Keith Norris
All free-roaming equids in North America are ecologically feral species. However, not all free-roaming horses and burros are subject to the same legal designations or regulations. In the U.S., the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, as amended, directs the federal management of legally described “wild” horses and burros on certain parcels of federal public lands stewarded by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Free-roaming equids that are not subject to the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act may have other legal descriptions (e.g., “feral” or “tribal”) and fall under the jurisdiction of states, tribes, local municipalities, or other federal agencies. Each legal designation provides for certain management authorities, goals and actions – and all are subject to social and political pressures. The federal law directs that wild horses and burros be managed as part of the multiple-use mandates for BLM and USFS lands, and in a manner that produces a “thriving natural ecological balance.” The law calls for active management of horses and burros, directing and permitting a number of management actions to be used by the federal agencies to achieve that goal. Congressional language provided in other legislation and agency policies produce conflicts with the law and prevent the utilization of some management options. Populations of free-roaming equids, particularly those on federal public lands in the West, have increased drastically over the past decade. Recent efforts by several organizations, including The Wildlife Society, to improve management actions through changes in policy have generated awareness and discussions about the natural resource management challenge posed by free-roaming equids. However, to date, policies have largely remained the same and populations of free-roaming equids continue to increase.
9:20AM Free Romainimg Equids and Range Management Policy
  J. Alfonso Ortega-S, Barry Perryman
The Society for Range Management membership is concerned with studying, conserving, managing and sustaining rangeland resources. Established in 1948, SRM has hosted over 4,000 members in 48 countries. SRM members were involved with wild equid management even before any federal legislation was enacted. The first legislation regarding wild equids was developed in the Nevada Legislature, March 13, 1913. The bill made it unlawful to use an airplane or other motor driven vehicle to hunt equids, or to pollute water holes in order to kill, wound, or maim. The Nevada law provided much of the language for Federal H.R. 2725 (The Airplane Act, Public Law 86-234, 1959). In 1971, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (Public Law 92-195) became law, placing the animals under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of Interior for the purpose of protection and management to achieve and maintain a thriving ecological balance on public lands where horses and burros were present at that time. The Act has been amended on four occasions since passage (1976, 1978, 1996, and 2005). Several Interior appropriation bills during the last two decades have contained language that inhibited the BLM’s ability to keep on-range equid populations at appropriate management levels (AML) by eliminating the use of euthanization and unrestricted sales. Additionally, riders to USDA appropriations have restricted equine slaughter inspections, causing disruptions in wild equid adoption demand; and increasing the number of off-range equids managed by the BLM. SRM policy supports wild equid use of rangelands in accordance with the original authorization and other multiple use legislation. The WFRHBA specifies management to provide “a thriving ecological balance”. SRM interprets this to mean that long-term ecological sustainability must be the primary consideration in devising management and administration policy on rangelands where wild equids are present.
09:40AM Break
10:10AM The Science of Foraging and Grazing Management for Large Animal Species on Public Rangelands
  Paul Meiman, Barry Perryman
The current Department of Interior, on-range population of wild equids is about 82,000 head. Inclusion of a 20% anticipated foal crop in 2018 would raise the number to about 98,300. Habitat destruction has increased because of overpopulation, primarily around preferred habitat areas. Although site-specific quantitative data are sometimes lacking, scientists and managers consistently report that the amount of surface area affected is increasing and the severity of the impact is worsening. In more and more instances, severity has reached the point of no return. Recovery will take decades or longer to stabilize, often at a lower ecological potential because of the complex interactions among increased soil erosion, decreased soil water holding capacity, the loss of soil nutrients, and long-term to nearly permanent changes in vegetation composition and structure. There are three components to the foraging/grazing ecosystem process: 1) Timing (seasonal date when foraging/grazing is introduced to the habitat); 2) Duration (how long is the habitat exposed to foraging/grazing animals); and 3) Intensity (the level of defoliation). In the case of domestic livestock, all three components are controlled by permit. Timing and duration are difficult to impossible to manipulate for big game wildlife species, however, foraging/grazing intensity is controlled through the increase or decrease of hunting tag permits that control population levels in any given area. The timing and duration of foraging/grazing by wild equids, like big game species, cannot be manipulated, leaving grazing intensity as the only component with the potential for management. However, for equid populations (with exceptions) the ability of managers to control populations has been truncated for decades. This truncation has led to reduced habitat potentials for other wild and domestic species that depend on seasonal habitats preferred by wild equids.
10:30AM Free-Roaming Equids and Wildlife
  Phillip Street
Free-roaming equids (feral horses and burros) are distributed across much of the Western United States. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that there are currently more than three times as many horses on the landscape than the habitat can sustainably support. Research has documented the direct negative impact of free-roaming equids to the habitat that many wildlife species are dependent on. In semi-arid systems where water is a limiting resource, studies have shown lower species diversity and richness for avian as well as mammalian species at water sources where feral horses are present. The indirect effects of free roaming equids on wildlife are less understood. We present a case study for Greater Sage-grouse, a species of concern with high conservation potential whose range overlaps much of the range of free-roaming equids in North America. We investigated the response of sage-grouse demographics, movements, and habitat to grazing of feral horses. We found little evidence that sage-grouse are avoiding areas with high intensities of grazing by feral horses. Likewise, there was little support for an effect of grazing on nest survival. Conversely, we observed lower chick survival in areas that had higher grazing intensities of feral horses. We also found evidence for a negative effect of grazing on the habitat grouse were using during this time in both upland and riparian systems. We discuss the importance of these findings for other wildlife species inhabiting this ecosystem, and provide suggestions for management and future research.
10:50AM BLM-Supported Contraception Research and Wild Horse and Burro Management
  Paul Griffin
Nearly every wild horse and burro herd on BLM-administered public lands is overpopulated. On BLM-administered lands, there were estimated to be more than 88,000 free-roaming wild horses and burros as of March 2019. That number does not include foals born this year, nor does it include more than 49,000 wild horses and burros that BLM manages in holding facilities. BLM has determined that the appropriate management level for wild horses and burros on the range is 26,690. High levels of year-round pressure from overpopulated wild horses and burros are causing severe rangeland resource degradation. Because wild horses and burros are long-lived and highly fertile, removals are required to reduce herd sizes – but herds could more easily be maintained at levels closer to the appropriate management levels if long-lasting fertility control methods were available and were used. Without fertility control, wild horse herds typically grow at rates of ~20% per year, and wild burro herds at ~15% per year. The most commonly used fertility control vaccines are inadequate. Available vaccines require multiple doses to be effective, and the most commonly used vaccine requires annual application. A handful of herds have animals that are approachable enough for vaccine delivery to be darted. However, most wild horses and burros are not approachable, so they need to be caught to be vaccinated, which can entail great cost and can cause animals to become capture-averse. Sterilization is identified in the Wild Horses and Burros Act as an approach to achieve appropriate management levels, but is not widely used to date. I will discuss BLM support for recent research that aims to improve the formulation and use of existing vaccines, to develop and test additional fertility control methods for wild horses and burros, and to model cost-benefit comparisons of different fertility control scenarios.
11:10AM Managing free-roaming equids at a landscape scale
  Jeff Beck
Management of free-roaming horses (Equus ferus caballus) and burros (E. asinus) is an escalating natural resource problem on federal and tribal lands in the western United States. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management administer 177 Herd Management Areas (HMAs) across 135,982 km2 in 10 western states. Within this region, horses occur over a wide range of climatic, edaphic, and vegetative conditions, yet despite intensive management, the current population of free-roaming equids on these lands now exceeds by nearly three-fold, the Appropriate Management Level of about 27,000 established by the Free-Roaming Wild Horses and Burros Act of 1971. Excessive densities can lead to poor animal condition and large-scale rangeland degradation. Ecological studies suggest burgeoning free-roaming equids can impact vegetation, water resources, and wildlife habitat. Monitoring forage and water availability offers a valuable means of tracking ecological and equid health, particularly when correlated with equid body condition. To address this problem, we used data from 26 GPS-equipped adult mares in the Adobe Town HMA of Wyoming from 2017–2019 to evaluate movement and resource selection characteristics of free-roaming horses with respect to resource availability. Mean home ranges in winter (60.9 km2) were larger than in summer (43.8 km2), whereas mean daily movements were greater in summer (9.5 km) than in winter (6.9 km). Approximately 21% of summer and winter locations occurred outside the HMA and 24% of summer locations occurred within 1 km of known water sources. Step-selection functions revealed patches containing higher vegetation production were the main driver of horse movements, but distance to water was less important. Our findings indicate that at the HMA-scale, horses moved extensively to acquire resources, including outside HMA boundaries. Landscape-level understandings are critical to provide strategies to optimize the health of free-roaming equids and conserve rangeland condition and biodiversity.
11:30AM Free-Roaming Equids and the American Mind
  Terry Messmer
The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act (WFRHBA) gave the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U. S. Forest Service (USFS) the statutory authority to manage and protect feral equids (i.e., wild horse and burros; Equus ferus and E. asinus, respectively) in designated management areas in ecological balance with other public land multiple-uses. In 2018, ecological balance for BLM-administered areas was 26,690. As of 1 March 2018, the BLM estimated that there were 81,951 ‘wild horse and burros’ inhabiting designated areas. Although Congress gave the BLM and the USFS legal authority to remove wild horses and burros from western rangelands, it has also blocked the sale of ‘wild horses and burros’ without limitation, and the use of euthanasia. These actions suggest that wild horse and burros may be valued above all other animals in contemporary U.S. society. The transformative power of the re-introduced horse to North American culture fostered a unique trust-based relationship which involved humans caring for the horse and vice versa. However, survey data also suggests Americans who are aware that ‘wild horse and burros’ exist, are also dissatisfied with the current policies. Most Americans also have positive perceptions about science. Thus, the science deficit model of communication suggests that; those who do not accept the science, simply do not understand it; therefore, all they need are more science. In the case of wild horse and burros however, more science has increased rather than decreased polarization. Despite the documented negative ecological impacts of free-roaming equids, the public stakeholders seem reluctant to accept biological solutions. Sustainable management of wild horses and burros will only be achieved with a better understanding of the needs, desires, and attitudes all public lands stakeholders balanced with the socio-economic and long-ecological consequences of contemporary policies on future generations of Americans unborn.
11:50AM Panel Discussion

Organizers: Terry Messmer, Cody Schroeder, Bill Vodehnal
Supported by: Nevada Chapter of the Wildlife Society, TWS Wildlife Damage Management Working Group,TWS Rangeland Wildlife Working Group, Jack H. Berryman Institute, Utah State University, Utah State University (USU) Extension

Location: Reno-Sparks CC Date: October 1, 2019 Time: 8:00 am - 11:50 am