By SCOTT SONNER Associated Press Writer
Posted: 06/21/2010 01:47:01 PM PDT -copyright AP
RENO, Nev.—Federal land managers launched an effort Monday to update their count of wild horses roaming parts of northwest Nevada and southwest Oregon, garnering rare praise from horse protection advocates.
The BLM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are joining forces this week to conduct the aerial census over about 4 million acres of federal land, primarily around the Sheldon and Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuges near the Nevada-Oregon line.
Wild horse advocates who have criticized the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s roundup of the mustangs are urging the agency to suspend all gathers until the new census is complete.
“This is a positive step,” said Makendra Silverman of the Cloud Foundation, a Colorado-based group that is among those challenging mustang roundups in court.
But she said an independent census should be conducted to address their concerns that BLM overestimates the number of horses on the range to justify the roundups aimed at reducing the herds’ population.
“The BLM readily admits to having no accurate national census of wild horses and burros living on our Western public lands and yet continues with plans to round up nearly 12,000 this fiscal year,” she said. “That is irresponsible.”
The agency estimates more than 38,000 horses and burros roam the range in 10 Western states, with roughly half in Nevada.
The BLM maintains the roundups are necessary because an overpopulation of horses is harming native
wildlife and the range, and threatening the mustangs with starvation. It believes the number that can be supported on the range is about 26,600.
Ron Wenker, BLM state director for Nevada, said the effort to update the population count with the help of an airplane is intended to utilize “improved population and survey methodology” in an area that has shown shifts in both horse numbers and distribution.
“Past population surveys and management projects by BLM and the USFWS within the survey area have shown that animals may move between a number of BLM herd management areas” and across the two wildlife refuges, Wenker said.
“This joint effort will produce a base line count and distribution for the entire area as a whole,” he said, adding that accurate population surveys are challenging because of the ruggedness of the terrain and vegetation cover.
“We are planning to return in the fall for a second survey, where we will see how and where the herds moved and how that affects population counts within the individual areas,” he said.