PALOMINO VALLEY, Nev. — The top Democrat on a congressional subcommittee on public lands said Wednesday that he wants to work with well-meaning U.S. land managers to overcome decades of mismanagement of wild horses and fix outdated, “broken” roundup policies he says prioritize livestock over mustangs.
After touring a government corral with more than 1,000 horses, Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva said he finds it disturbing that the number of captured horses and burros in holding pens now slightly surpasses the estimated 40,000 on the range in 10 Western states.
“Those numbers should disturb people,” Grijalva said, adding that it makes no sense to spend tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to round up horses from their native range when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has no room to store them.
“It’s not a question of blame,” he told reporters outside the BLM’s Palomino Valley holding facility north of Reno. “It’s a question of a policy and management strategy that has consistently failed in preserving and sustaining the wild horse legacy of this country.”
Grijalva, ranking member of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on public lands and environmental regulation, said he hopes to work with BLM to develop legislation that would lead to a “sound management plan with the maximum amount of habitat that the wild horses use ... as opposed to a management plan that is constricted around holding pens.”
He pointed to a recent independent scientific report recommending the agency move away from roundups and put more emphasis on the use of contraceptives and other fertility control methods to manage horse populations.
The 14-member panel assembled by the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council concluded that BLM’s removal of nearly 100,000 horses from the Western range over the past decade is probably having the opposite effect of its intention to ease ecological damage and cull the herds.
By stepping in prematurely when food and water supplies remain adequate, and with most natural predators long gone, the land management agency is producing artificial conditions that ultimately serve to perpetuate population growth, the committee said in a 451-page report in June.
BLM spokeswoman Erica Szlosek said Wednesday that the agency welcomed the congressman’s visit. She said it continues to review the academy panel’s recommendations.
“The NAS report did not call for an end to the gathers. It looked at different options on the range, population control, growth depression, those kinds of measures,” she said. “We’ve been reading the report and we are parsing out chapter by chapter different parts to different specialists at BLM to look at the range of possibilities.”
The number of animals at holding facilities surpassed the estimated number on the range earlier this year for the first time since President Richard Nixon signed the Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. BLM estimates there are about 40,000 wild horses and burro on the range, about half of those in Nevada.
The scientific panel said the agency averaged removing 8,000 horses from the range annually from 2002 to 2011. Last year, it spent 60 percent of its wild horse budget on holding facilities, more than $40 million.
Grijalva said livestock outnumbers mustangs by margins of 3-to-1 or more on many federal lands designated as horse management areas.
“It should be a shared resource,” he said, adding that he believes the political and fiscal landscape of the debate has changed significantly since the NAS panel concluded the agency has a “very broken management system” that is “not functional.”
“When advocates are passionate about an issue — as advocates for the wild horses are — sometimes unfortunately you dismiss that as being ‘a point of view,’” he said.
“I think what the academy did is validate it. You have an independent validator that said these are the findings after rigorous study and these are the areas in which we see significant faults, and things must change or this situation will get worse,” he said.