An Update After the International Equine Conference
While Ginger and I were only able to attend the last day of the 1st Annual International Equine Conference, it was the wild horse and burro day. The weather outside might have been grim in Alexandria, VA, but the mood inside seemed hopeful.
And that was when the new head of BLM’s Wild horse and Burro Program stood up to give her introduction. The mood shifted, and you could cut the tension with a knife. Everyone was anxious to hear how Joan Guilfoyle, only at her new post for 5 weeks, would address a group of equine (both domestic and wild) advocates. She was joined by long-standing BLMers Dean Bolstad and Ed Roberson.
Guilfoyle spoke of her background primarily – an introduction followed by normal BLM rhetoric. Her presence at the Conference was likely a tactical move, but I think largely appreciated by the wild horse community. She encouraged us to attend a “gather” (a benign term created by BLM to soften the roundup event) and spoke highly of BLM’s work to preserve horses and burros on the range. She also encouraged folks to adopt a mustang. But when she asked for a show of hands as to who in the room has adopted before, she seemed surprised at the high percentage of attendees whose hands were thrust into the air.
I don’t think the tension eased in the room until emcee RT Fitch (of Habitat for Horses and Wild Horse Freedom Federation) and Vicki Tobin (of Equine Welfare Alliance, who helped organize the Conference) introduced Ginger, our volunteer Executive Director at The Cloud Foundation. The room exploded with applause and a standing ovation. I don’t think there could have been anyone better to follow Joan Guilfoyle. One of the first things Ginger did was look at Guilfoyle directly and invite her to visit the Pryors with her – or any other herd for that matter – and sit on a hill quietly and watch them at peace.
Ginger went through her experiences at roundups and how they’ve changed over the years and how much worse it’s gotten. She covered how much wild horses and burros have lost since 1971, both in acreage and in numbers. One of the biggest points made was the inaccuracy of population data BLM provides. That’s when she looked back at Joan Guilfoyle and staunchly said that, in her opinion, BLM is managing our wild horses and burros to extinction.
Assisted by charts created by C.R. MacDonald and Lisa LeBlanc (updated by Carla Bowers), Ginger showed off the great disparity and inaccuracy of BLM’s own published data. Using BLM data published in 2007, accounting for removals and the 20% growth rate BLM maintains, the wild horse and burro population as of September 30, 2011 should be 17,724 – a far cry from the 38,500 BLM reports are on the range.
The biggest unveiling was Ginger’s “10 Steps to Restore America’s Wild Horses and Burros,” a points piece of ways to help preserve wild horses and burros on the range – not in holding pens – which warranted a standing ovation at the end of her speech.
10 Steps to Restore America’s Wild Horses and Burros:
- Raise the Animal Unit Months (AUMs)
- Increase Appropriate Management Levels (AMLs)
- Restore lost acreage
- Create wild horse corridors
- Protect predators
- Ground the helicopters
- Use only bait/water trapping
- Apply only 1-year dartable PZP
- Increase budget for accurate censusing, range monitoring & range improvements
- Return short-term holding horses to zeroed-out HMAs
There were some truly great presentations made throughout the day. Craig Downer, wildlife ecologist (and Cloud Foundation board member), discussed equid evolution pointing out that wild horses evolved to a finished form in the Americas although they traveled to Asia across the Land Bridge at various stages of their development. Most up-to-date science shows that the horse died out in America only 7,000 years ago – confirming that our wild horses and burros are returned native species.
Dr. Dan Rubenstein, a professor of zoology, ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, reported on the pros and cons of removals and immunocontraception. His report highlighted his research with the Shackleford Banks horses in North Carolina. It showed how the herd has shown a spike in birth rates following a removal. But with the use of PZP and a small removal system, they’ve been able to keep the population much more stable.
After James Kleinart gave a special screening of his film Wild Horses and Renegades, Caroline Betts, Ph.D., M.A., an economist at University of Southern California, gave her breakdown of the GAO report on slaughter, showing its gaping holes in research which led to baseless conclusions. She also gave her opinion of BLM’s population data rates, saying, “Either the removal data is wrong or the 20 percent population growth is wrong.” Based on BLM’s assumption that wild horse populations double every four years, that would mean there would be millions of wild horses roaming the West.
A fascinating presentation was given by Dr. Bruce Nock of Washington University’s School of Medicine on the effects of stress in captivity, specifically related to wild horses. He pointed out the amount of stress that wild horses and burros go through during a roundup which can lead to severe neurological and physical health issues. The BLM rhetoric that wild horses do not go through any undue stress during a roundup is baseless, he maintains. He also argued that BLM veterinarians lack the expertise and knowledge to assess the effects of stress on captured animals.
Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick, one of the creators of the PZP drug, gave his presentation, with specific references to his research on Assateague Island, a wild horse population that is maintained solely with PZP. “If you’re born on Assateague Island you get to die on Assateague Island,” he said. I should note that Assateague, should not be confused with neighboring Chincoteague Island – famous (or infamous) for its removals of the ponies by swimming them across the channel. Dr. Kirkpatrick also stated that wild horses are an indisputably returned natives species.
HSUS’ representative, Stephanie Boyles, gave her presentation on her organization’s vision for the wild horse program, most of which centers around the use of PZP. Karen Sussman of International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros spoke on wild horse behavior; and Madeleine Pickens gave a speech and showcased her wild horse sanctuary efforts. A National Academy of Sciences representative, Kara Laney, give a brief overview of the new NAS study and its procedures.
All in all it was a very informative day, and I do wish I could have been there for the other two days. We appreciated that Joan Guilfoyle and Ed Roberson of the BLM stayed for the majority of the day’s presentations. Dean Bolstad stayed until the very end.
While the vast majority of the American public still remains unaware of the issues surrounding wild horses and burros (or even that they still exist), it is my sincerest hope that what people took away from this conference is the need to spread the word. Only through awareness and being an active voice can you really make a difference. Passiveness is our worst enemy, and these icons need a voice, a unified one at that. Wild horses and burros have a legal right to live out their lives free on the home ranges. They belong to the American public, and it should be a goal for all of us to make sure that they stay wild.