Wild horses to get better treatment, BLM vows

A helicopter is used by the Bureau of Land Management to round up wild horses in Utah's Conger Mountains (Photo: Jim Urquhart, Reuters).
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Brooks Hays

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has issued a directive ordering all staff members and agency contractors to treat wild horses more humanely and be more open with the public about their care.

Each year, the BLM corrals wild horses to be sterilized, put on the auction block, or sent to federally-managed holding pens. It's an effort the agency says is needed to control the rapidly growing populations on federally-owned rangelands. But it is also a practice that, over the years, has come under attack from an increasingly vocal opposition.

Wild horse advocates have repeatedly sued the agency, challenging its authority, questioning the need for the roundups, and alleging mistreatment of the horses.

The new policy addresses at least some of these concerns by requiring daily internal reports on any roundups in progress, as well as a review after each roundup to “improve future performance by sustaining strengths and correcting weaknesses.” It also requires BLM staff to post updates to the agency’s website on each roundup no later than the next day.

Other pieces of the policy deal more specifically with the care of the horses. One calls on helicopter-pilots-turned-wranglers to ensure "every effort is made to prevent foals from being left behind or orphaned in the field." Another aims to prevent wild horses from being sold or sent to the slaughterhouse by limiting the number that may be bought by a person or group within a six-month period.

“At the end of the day, we need to find better ways to manage for healthier animals and healthier rangelands so that we can keep these symbols of the American West on our nation’s public lands,” acting BLM Director Mike Pool said in a statement.

The announcement arrives in the wake of the news that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar plans to step down from his position in March. Wild horse advocates like Ginger Kathrens, director of the Cloud Foundation, have largely seen Salazar and his agency as a friend of ranchers, not horses.

"They really need to stop rounding up the horses and come with up directives that look at on-the-range management, if the wild horses are going to have a future in the West," Kathrens says.

Salazar defended his approach in a 2010 Los Angeles Times op-ed, saying he was working for “humane, environmentally sound solutions” and accusing advocates of “demonizing” the BLM.

With Salazar departing, horse advocates and ranchers alike are watching closely to see who will take his place,