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Guy Palmer, Director of the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health, Washington State University and chair of the panel that wrote the NAS report
BY IAN MYLCHREEST -- The future of wild horses on Western rangeland has usually been debated by interest groups – horse lovers and ranchers. Last week, a third voice entered the fray with the publication of a report commissioned by the Bureau of Land Management from the National Academy of Sciences.
“What we do is, within the committee, look very carefully at the science that underlies a variety of options. So what are the consequences of the current policy … of taking them off the range and putting them into long-term holding versus some other alternative?” says Professor Guy Palmer of Washington State University, chairman of the committee that wrote the report.
Palmer sees many problems with the current policies, for example, one policy conflicts with the other but both are top priorities for the BLM. Right now, the bureau focuses on managing the rangeland for multiple uses (such as raising cattle) and maintaining the health of the rangeland and the horses. The BLM has now removed so many horses that they are now in “long-term holding” because they cannot be adopted.
The panel also criticized the existing estimates of the horse population. Current methods of judging the size of the horse population have “not uniformly met the scientific criteria.” The committee wants a good scientific basis for horse numbers, said Palmer, because the public has to trust those numbers and not “worry about things such as, ‘Are the horses being managed to extinction?’”
Without management, the horse population would go to “self-limitation.” That’s a euphemism for surviving on whatever water and food the range provides and it would ultimately be a Darwinian process. Few areas have any significant predators, said Palmer. “So if you just let animals to this point that we call ‘self-limitation,’ the consequences are degradation of the range, and eventually as the horses become thinner and thinner, obviously lack of access to forage, lack of access to water, their reproductive rate goes down,” he added. Eventually a significant number of horses would die off, a prospect that drought in the West would dramatically increase.
At public hearings before the panel, Palmer said, there was little support for letting the herd simply manage itself because it would both damage the environment and result in gruesome deaths for many horses. That is not the panel’s recommendation, he added, but it would be the consequence.
Now, however, the wild horse population is growing at close to its maximum because it is being artificially sustained by provisions. That only creates more horses, said Palmer, that then have to be removed from the range. The panel recommends fertility control as a means to balance the population with the environment. Moving contraception from small islands to tens of millions of acres make it “a challenge,” noted Palmer. Scaling it up is the problem, but that is also necessary to find a solution on the Western range.