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If you’re a chess player and someone presented to you a match in mid-game where your given side is losing and heading for a checkmate within 5 moves, what do you do? What you DON’T DO is to continue playing it with the same strategy that had led your side to the desperate predicament to begin with. What you SHOULD DO is to treat the given current configuration as the opening configuration of a new game, and start playing it with a new strategy.

The previous section – The Problem – presented to you one such losing game. Your challenge is to win the game against all odds.

Let’s first of all set up the current configuration of this horse-vs-cattle game.

The Wild Horse has an UNPRECEDENTED PROBLEM which requires an UNPRECEDENTED SOLUTION, one we currently do not seem to have.

The problem: 50,000 wild horses will go to slaughter, to begin with, followed by hundreds of thousands in the years to come, ad nauseam. In the history of the horse since its beginning in North America 5 million years ago, it has never faced such a monstrous persecution, except the one some 13,000 years ago that drove the American branch of Equus caballus, along with the other mega-fauna, to extinction. If it happened once before, it can happen again, and it will – unless we can devise an unprecedented solution for this unprecedented problem.

One thing about this “unprecedented solution” is that it will have to win a losing game with a new strategy starting mid-game. Let me use an analogy. If you’re a chess player and someone presented to you a match in mid-game where your given side is losing and heading for checkmate within 5 moves, what do you do? What we SHOULD NOT DO is to continue playing the game with the same old strategy that has led our side to the desperate predicament in the first place. What we OUGHT TO DO is to treat the given current configuration as the opening configuration of a new game, and start playing it with a new strategy. Reality has presented to us one such losing game. Our challenge is to win it against all odds.

Let’s start on the solid and objective ground of science. In 2013, the universally respected National Academy of Sciences (NAS) published a 13-point paper, which cost $1.2 million dollars to produce, assessing the ways and means by which the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) managed the wild horses and burros living on the public land under its jurisdiction. For the sake of simplicity and brevity, I won’t list all 13 points here, only those of central importance to both the problem and the solution.

1. BLM’s POPULATION MONITORING PROCEDURE, upon which management strategies is based, is not sufficiently “rigorous” to be deemed dependable.

2. The statistics on the NATIONAL POPULATION SIZE is “not scientifically rigorous”, apparently treating the data as if every last horse (hereafter including burro) has been counted and accounted for, resulting probably in “underestimating the actual number of animals on the range”.

4. Agrees with BLM that “the majority of free-ranging horse populations are GROWING 15-20 PERCENT A YEAR”, or doubling every 4 years. Some contend that this cannot be true citing stats of foal mortality of up to 50% and adult mortality of up to 25% A YEAR, but “up to” does not mean the norm. In fact, if a herd suffers these maximum figures, it would likely be starving or dying of thirst, or else being struck by some lethal equine epidemic.

5. Management practices are “facilitating high rates of population growth”, because BLM’s “removals hold populations below levels affected by food limits”. In other words, BLM is OVER-REMOVING HORSES on the range. This supports the above points on the inadequacies of BLM figures and methods.

6. “PREDATORS WILL NOT TYPICALLY CONTROL POPULATION GROWTH RATES OF HORSES.” Cougar and horse habitats are different and seldom overlap, and NAS was unable to “find any examples of wolf predation on free-ranging horses”. This confirms, in effect, my oft-repeated “virtual absence of predators”.

7. “The most promising FERTILITY CONTROL METHODS for free-ranging horses or burros are porcine zona pellucida (PZP) vaccines and GonaConTM vaccine for females and chemical vasectomy for males”, implying that NAS sees the necessity of equine birth control, and approves of the contraceptive methods currently available.

12. How the “APPROPRIATE MANAGEMENT LEVELS (AML ~ Carrying Capacity) are established, monitored, and adjusted is not transparent to stakeholders, supported by scientific information, or amenable to adaptation with new information and environmental and social change”.

In one sentence, the NAS agrees with the BLM on the reproductive rate of 15-20% and the need for fertility control, but questions the BLM on almost everything else including its population monitoring methodology, the population figures emerging therefrom, the carrying capacity of the land for the horse, the lack of transparency of the BLM to stake holders and the scientific community, and its lack of a coherent strategy for the long term sustainability of the wild horse.

The BLM’s reaction to this report has been more or less one of evasion, and, during the 6 years since the publication of this report, little change by BLM in the NAS-criticized-areas has been made.

All in all, it is not for no reason that wild horse advocates also question the BLM on all of the above, some even attack what the NAS and the BLM agree on – i.e. the reproductive rate and the need for fertility control. Some even argue that there is no such thing as Carrying Capacity, and therefore no such thing as Overpopulation, that therefore nothing should be done, and the horses will regulate their own population. NAS relied that this would lead to “equine self-regulation BY STARVATION compounded with irreparable ecological damage.

SPEAKING OF WILD HORSE POPULATION: While we understand that a previous incarnation of the BLM was the US Grazing Service (USGS), and expected BLM to favor cattle over horse, many find the 97%-to-3% cattle-over-horse population-bias unacceptable, especially given that according to equine origin and evolution the horse is native to America, whereas the cattle’s ancestry traces back to Asia and Europe, making it the invasive species, and that even at 3% the horse is being handled in a draconian, inhumane and undignified manner.

We further question why, given BLM’s own understanding of Birth Control (BC) being the only way to prevent round-up (RU), that it would still conduct RU year after year, rather than implement BC to the extent of displacing RU once and for all.

On this last score we can’t place all blame on the BLM. There are 3 influential groups on “our side” that not only are dead set against fertility control in principle, but have the wealth in resources, but poverty in wisdom, to launch obstructionist lawsuits against BC projects, be they conducted by pro-BC groups or the BLM, or a combination thereof. Good thing that there are 5 times (5X) more pro-BC groups than the 3 anti-BC groups. Any one of these 15 or so pro-BC groups pitted against the most powerful of the 3 anti-BC groups would likely lose, but if these 15 groups would form a highly integrated Pro-BC Coalition, the 3 anti-BC groups won’t stand much of a chance.

To form this Pro-BC Coalition and making it a single fighting force, not just regarding the anti-BC sub-movement, but a force to reckon with by BLM and even Congress. This is part of the Unprecedented Solution in question.

Following is a comprehensive view of the “Unprecedented Problem” – why it is unprecedented:

In the 1960s and prior, there was no protection for the Mustang. Anyone with a truck and a lasso could go and capture any number of them, and sell them to the highest bidding meat merchant, at home or abroad. Since 1971, with the passage of the “Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act”, capturing and killing of wild horses by the public became prohibited, with the BLM created and placed in charge to enforce a new no-kill policy.

In 1971, the horse/burro population was estimated by BLM to be 26,000, which then set the AML at 26,600. How coincidental! How convenient! How suspicious! Doesn’t look like the BLM had a very good PR department back then.

The 1970s was a time before equine BC technology. The population of the 26,000 wild horses (include burros) increased by the requisite 15-20% per year, say 5,000 extra horses to a new total of 31,000. To keep the resultant horse population below the AML of 26,600 on any given year, BLM would round-up the “excess”, in this example 4,400, and have them adopted. This system worked well for a few years, but public enthusiasm for Mustang adoption waned, and adoptions plummeted. Abiding by the no-kill policy, BLM set up corral-style holding facilities (HFs) on an as-needed basis. With its ~$60 million annual budget, the BLM could set up quite a few of these, then tend to the horses taken in, and continue pushing the adoption program.

In the beginning of these HFs, it was manageable, but fast-forward to 2017, these HFs had grown in total capacity to 45,000 horses, and running them had risen to over 90% of the BLM annual budget, leaving precious little for on range BC work. Worse, worst really, came 2018, the procrastination of kicking the can down the road finally hit the wall. The number of captive horses in these HFs had risen to full capacity, even the peripheral longer-term holding pastures in surrounding states, capacity about 30,000 – total in captivity about 75,000.

For a clear and simple view, let me itemize the problem components:

1. 1.5 million cows vs <50,000 horses/burros (2014)

2. The AML for horses on BLM land, or carrying capacity for horse, was set in 1971 at 26,600 maximum.

3. The 2014 horse/burro population was ~35,000. 4 years later, in 2018, the population was reported as 82,000. By the doubling-every-4-years formula, the 2018 population should have been 140,000, which suggests that the 82,000 figure might be low, or that repeated round-ups had cut the 140,000 nearly in half, and that the BC work done up to 2018 has had some moderating effect. But even at 82,000, it was still 53,400 over the 26,600 AML. If it was 140,000, it would be 113,400 over AML – Pegasus forbid. The crucial question is: Where to put all these over-AML horses? Where else but the slaughterhouse?

4. With partial birth control, the population would increase at a moderate 15% per annum, or doubling every 5-6 years instead of 4. Thus the 2019 population would be around 100,000, based on the 82,000 2018 number.

5. The capacity of the holding facilities amount to ~45,000 at short-term corrals plus ~30,000 at long term pastures, totaling ~75,000. BLM spends over 90% of its annual budget of ~$70 million to maintain and operate the HFs, leaving less than 10% for contraceptive work on the range.

6. While prior to 2018 these holding facilities still had room for more captive horses, now, after 2018. there is NO MORE VACANCY. Thus all newly rounded-up horses have nowhere to go but the slaughterhouse (except about 7% that are adopted).

7. The three anti-birth-control groups have more or less succeeded in obstructing equine birth control work on public land, which, if not neutralized, will generate more and more excess horses in the years to come, and more and more horses being rounded up and going to slaughter.

The above, then, is the opening configuration of the “new game” which we must play with a brand new strategy. So, what is this new strategy?

THE UNPRECEDENTED SOLUTION

1. BLM to work with NAS to scientifically determine the correct AML for [horse + cattle] on BLM land that we all can live with..

2. BLM to remove 150,000 head of cattle from the current 1.5 million – a mere 10% reduction, which will raise the AML for the horse from 26,600 up to ~175,000 – a near 700% (7X) increase. A great and fair trade off for the horse in the background of cattle still numbering in the vast majority.

3. Allow the ~100,000 horses currently on range to stay on range, i.e. to stop all round-up activities. Further, release the 75,000 captive horses in the HFs back on to the range as well, perhaps even back to their original herds, though not before #4.

4. Of course birth control will have to be administered on the entire horse population, now fully on the range, but considering field darting to be labor intensive, time consuming, expensive and not 100% effective, plus the fact that a first shot requires a booster shot after 30 days, which entails relocating the horse for the booster, it would make sense to contracept the captive horses instead – by injection, followed by the booster shot 30 days hence, all in the confines and convenience of the HFs, before releasing them back on range.

5. Close most if not all of the HFs (while keeping the adoption program intact), thereby releasing 90% of BLM’s annual budget of $80.6 million back to management on the range. We are talking about at least $60 million freed up. Removing 150,000 head of cattle from the range would cost the BLM about 2.5 million, which now looks downright insignificant in the equation.

6. The removal of 150,000 head of cattle will reduce cattle food requirement by 10%, which can be transferred to the horse with or without supplemental feeding. If supplementary feeding is required, it could come from the feed the captive horses would have received in the HFs.

7. If there are 175,000 horses on the range and the AML is reset at 175,000, then all needed to be done would be to practice mild MAINTENANCE-CONTRACEPTION to keep the horse population marginally below 175,000, year after year.

8. In the case of the BLM refusing to lower the cattle population by 10% or at all, this still can work – with the insertion of a period of gradual decrease of the horse population (years) by means of more intensive REDUCTION-CONTRACEPTION to bring the equine population down to whatever the new AML jointly determined by NAS/BLM may be. The amount of supplemental feeding required will be high in the beginning, but will decrease from year to year as the population settles towards the new AML. When the population equals the AML, then Maintenance-Contraception will take over – till the end of time.

In the very long run, when veganism impacts beef consumption in a big way, the land will gradually return to the horse.

Anthony Marr