RENO - This is not Boyd Spratling's first rodeo. The new chairman of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board has seen a lot in his 35 years as a veterinarian in rural northeast Nevada. But he admits, he's not sure what he's gotten himself into this time.
"This is one of those jobs where you will think, 'What was I thinking?' " Spratling told the eight other members of the citizen panel who nodded knowingly after backing him for the hot seat at last week's meeting in Reno.
The members of the advisory board face a complicated task of trying to balance the needs of the federally protected herds against competing interests of birds, livestock, ranchers and hunters. Meanwhile, an ongoing drought and shrinking budgets limit the board's options.
"An incredibly difficult issue," said Joan Guilfoyle, the new national director of the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program. "It is probably in my mind the No. 1 land management, human-dimensions issue in the country."
By the end of last week's meeting, Spratling, of Deeth, was helping lead a complicated discussion of the latest research on reproductive drugs, vaccines and sterilization practices aimed at slowing the growth of horse herd populations that double naturally every five years if left unchecked.
The soaring cost of housing 47,000 horses removed from the range - significantly more than the 37,000 now estimated to be on public lands in 10 Western states - has forced BLM to place more emphasis on population control and less on roundups. The $2 million in new spending within its $77 million budget for 2012 will be targeted at such research.
But in the meantime, the agency continues to struggle with myriad problems. Guilfoyle ticked off the biggest challenges, beginning with the fact the BLM believes there are still 10,000 more wild horses on the range than it can ecologically sustain.
Horse advocates disagree. They argue livestock should be removed from the range at a faster pace than the horses, which they say have a legal right to be there under the Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971.
But Guilfoyle insisted there is still a need to remove the horses to protect the range. "Drought conditions are a big concern. Adoptions are still down," she said. "Long-term holding space - we are having a challenge getting enough of it. Short-term holding space is expensive because gas and hay is rising."
"Where do you put these animals? We only have so much money."