WASHINGTON — A federal helicopter roundup of wild horses in eastern Nevada that will begin Monday is one of many that have drawn criticism in recent years by lawmakers who advocate for other means to reduce the number of the iconic animals on public lands in the West.
That bipartisan opposition could increase in the new Congress when Democrats take control of the House next year and challenge Trump administration proposals on the wild horse program.
The roundup in Nevada will be conducted by the Bureau of Land Management Ely District on sagebrush plateaus south of Ely and northwest of Caliente.
It is expected to last up to 21 days and is meant to reduce the population of wild horses in the Silver King Herd Management Area from 1,244 to 244. The reduction is needed to maintain wildlife and livestock habitat and reduce wildlife degradation of public lands, according to a BLM advisory.
Recent roundups by the BLM and the federal process to reduce wild horse herds have drawn opposition from Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., and other critics, who charge that the federal government is wasting money rounding up and holding the horses instead of using more effective birth control programs.
The federal government spends about $81 million each year on the wild horse program. In a Jan. 4 letter to the BLM, Titus urged a reassessment of fiscal priorities, noting that only 1 percent of the money was spent on fertility programs, while 67 percent was spent on roundups and removals.
In a Sept. 18 letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Titus also questioned whether the Trump administration was making it easier for buyers of the horses to violate a prohibition on resale of the animals to slaughterhouses.
She cited an Inspector General’s report that found that one buyer purchased 1,794 horses from the BLM between 2008 and 2012 and sold them to slaughterhouses in Mexico, despite the prohibition.
The BLM concluded that it had no recourse because of the ineffectual language of its contract with the buyer, according to the report.
“The public deserves to know what is happening to these icons of our Western heritage,” Titus told Zinke in her September letter. “We urge you to uphold your obligation to ensure their humane treatment.”
In its last two fiscal budgets, the Trump administration has sought to remove prohibitions on horse slaughter. Congress rejected the proposal for fiscal 2019, which began Oct. 1.
Zinke told the House Appropriations Committee in April that despite the BLM’s spending $81 million a year, nothing has been done to address the problem of growing herds.
He also said holding wild horses in captivity is inhumane, and he favors birth control, but he blamed Congress for the annual tug-of-war over the slaughter issue.
Zinke told the panel he remains an advocate of the roundups to reduce the herds, as well as neutering and spaying programs.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, called the birth control inoculations ineffective, and he urged more permanent spaying and neutering.
Livestock groups have urged the Trump administration to soften the ban on horse slaughter. But a bipartisan group of lawmakers has placed riders in spending bills to prevent the BLM from using tax money to kill unadopted horses. And BLM officials said they are prohibited from doing so by law.
Trump administration changes to the law could make it easier for buyers to resell the animals for commercial slaughter, according to the Humane Society and other animal rights groups.
The animals are protected under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, which authorizes the BLM to manage the herds.
Roundup open to public
The horse roundup Monday is being conducted under that law and is open to public inspection or view. The BLM said the public is welcome to view the operation, and it will escort those interested to observation sites.
Horses removed from the Silver King area will be transported to the Indian Lakes Off-Range Wild Horse and Burro Corrals in Fallon, where they will be checked by a veterinarian and readied for the adoption program, according to the BLM Ely District.
A roundup of wild horses this year in the Fish Springs region of the Pine Nut Mountain Herd Area drew complaints from thousands of citizens who opposed the removal and advocated the use of a birth control vaccine provided by private resources.
Titus told Zinke then that the alternative would humanely maintain the herd population, “support the ecotourism of the industry and protect the welfare of these iconic denizens of the range.”
With Democrats taking control of the House, Congress may place more scrutiny on the wild horse program and the BLM’s handling of the herds in Southwest states.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., is expected to chair the House Natural Resources Committee, which has oversight over federal lands, the Interior Department and its agencies.
Grijalva pressed Zinke in September about a change in policy that allowed a buyer to purchase 24 horses passed over for adoption without special permission, a waiting period or justification.
Previous BLM policy limited a single buyer’s purchases to no more than four wild horses or burros every six months.
Grijalva said Zinke’s policy changes “raise concerns about the department’s commitment to this long-standing prohibition.”
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