New coalition seeks science-based solutions for embattled BLM program
Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
Published: Tuesday, June 11, 2013
It's not often that livestock growers, hunters and wildlife advocates find common ground on natural resource issues, but the Bureau of Land Management's wild horse and burro program is one case in point.
Beginning in February, a diverse coalition including the Wildlife Society, National Cattlemen's Beef Association and National Wildlife Refuge Association joined forces to lobby BLM to strike a balance between wild horses and the native fish, wildlife and plants on public rangelands.
The 13-member National Horse and Burro Rangeland Management Coalition also includes the National Rifle Association, the National Association of Conservation Districts and BLM's main retirees group, the Public Lands Foundation.
Individually, each group has a stake in how BLM manages the estimated 38,000 wild horses and burros roaming some 10 Western states. But collectively, they say they now have a stronger voice.
"People were willing to put their own organizations' politics aside to focus on important issues," said Terra Rentz, deputy director for government affairs at the Wildlife Society and chairwoman of the coalition.
While the groups have diverse -- and, at times, conflicting -- core missions, they share in common a desire to maintain rangeland biodiversity, working landscapes and science-based decision making.
The group last week backed the main findings of a National Academy of Sciences study on BLM's wild horse program, which called for active management of herds through fertility control, more accurate population estimates and greater transparency with the public.
But the coalition is entering a volatile fray -- one dominated by groups pushing a more laissez-faire approach to wild horses. Wild horse advocates have long blamed BLM for unfairly favoring livestock grazing at the expense of wild horses.
The wild horse and burro program has been one of BLM's most controversial.
The agency is tasked by law to remove horses when herds get too large -- which threatens native species and forage for livestock -- but is routinely sued or hounded by wild horse advocates who argue the agency is removing too many horses or neglecting their welfare.
Larger grass-roots groups including the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign have enlisted the support of celebrities including Carole King, Robert Redford and Betty White. The group last week said the NAS report is grounds for an "immediate halt" to the roundup and removal of wild horses.
In rare cases when horses are injured or killed during roundups, advocates post videos on YouTube, sparking sensational news stories and reigniting raw emotions.
It's a difficult political atmosphere for groups with opposing views, Rentz said.
"In the context of wild horse and burro management, it's pretty volatile," she said. "Here's a species that is loved by all Americans, but we have environment that didn't evolve with it."
Rentz's coalition argues that wild horses are a non-native species and should be managed according to "the land's scientifically proven capability to accommodate a variety of uses," including livestock grazing.
The coalition hopes to provide political room for lawmakers to get involved.
"Whenever we introduce the group to new agency officials or members of Congress, we see them get this look of relief," Rentz said. "We don't want them to back policies that will hurt them politically, but we want them to have the support they need to make the right choices for appropriate management."
The coalition is currently partnering with the National Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy, and the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, each of which holds broad bipartisan appeal in Congress.
Desiree Sorenson-Groves, vice president of government affairs for the National Wildlife Refuge Association, a founding member of the coalition, said her group initially got involved because of wild horse issues at the Sheldon and Hart national wildlife refuges in Nevada and at Currituck National Wildlife Refuge on the North Carolina coast.
Feral horses that wander onto Currituck can trample native habitat important to endangered piping plovers and loggerhead sea turtles, the group said, likening the herd to invasive kudzu vine and Burmese pythons.
The House last week passed a bill requiring the Fish and Wildlife Service to allow more horses at Currituck to increase genetic diversity, despite opposition from the agency, NWRA, the Wildlife Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Ducks Unlimited and other groups.
The horses, which have roamed the North Carolina shore for centuries, are a prime tourist attraction. The Senate recently put the bill on a potential fast track to passage.
Sorenson-Groves said her group is also concerned with BLM's horses spilling over onto refuge lands. She said dialogue with wild horse advocacy groups is critical.
"It's a super-complex issue, and there's no magic solution," she said. "But if we don't start a meaningful dialogue with folks who think horse populations should be unchecked, we are in for a world of hurt as these populations explode."