The Interior Department's wild horse and burro chief today assured critics that her agency is not selling horses for slaughter and has no intention of overseeing their extinction.
Joan Guilfoyle, division chief for the Bureau of Land Management's wild horse and burro program, said a mix of fertility control and herd gathers is critical to maintaining a healthy balance on the range, but that extinction is not in the agency's bailiwick.
"The mission is for wild free-roaming horses and burros to be a continuing living legacy of the American heritage," Guilfoyle said today in a speech to the International Equine Conference in Alexandria, Va. "Extinction is by no means on our agenda."
She added that BLM sells horses only to those who have pledged to treat them humanely and not sell them for slaughter.
"As a matter of fact, BLM prosecutes people who do that," said Guilfoyle.
BLM said it delays the transfer of title to new horse owners to ensure they cannot sell them for slaughter. The administrative policy is maintained despite its possible violation of a 2004 amendment requiring horses to be sold "without limitation," BLM said.
But Guilfoyle's words drew skepticism from the crowd of more than 100, many of them horse advocates and critics of BLM's program.
Some shouted "Lies" and "We don't believe you." Their criticism comes less than a month after a pair of Utah men were indicted by a federal grand jury for an alleged scheme that investigators said involved the planned sale of wild horses to Mexico for slaughter, according to the Deseret News.
Guilfoyle, who took the helm of the program last month, said the conference was an opportunity to engage with those who have fought BLM's wild horse roundups.
Her program faces spiraling costs to feed and care for captured horses until they can be adopted. It also faces criticism from horse advocates who say the roundups are inhumane, and from public lands ranchers and landowners who say the law mandates the horses be kept to their original range so as not to compete for forage (Greenwire, Sept. 20).
"Our goal is to find common ground," she said. "While you and I will continue to disagree on some things, and we probably will, I would just ask that we do so respectfully."
But Ginger Kathrens, executive director of the Cloud Foundation, a wild horse advocacy group, said BLM likely has vastly overestimated the number of horses on the range in order to justify their removal. The total number is likely half of BLM's estimate of 38,000, she said.
Growth rates, which BLM estimates at 20 percent annually, would have to be dramatically higher in order for the national population to meet the agency's estimate, she said.
"The handwriting is certainly, in our opinion, on the wall right now," she said. "BLM is managing wild horses and burros to extinction."
Kathrens outlined a proposal for BLM to increase appropriate management levels for herds and the use of predator control, discontinue the use of helicopters in gathers and use only bait and water to trap horses if they must be rounded up, among other recommendations.
Advocates have argued that helicopters often fly too low during roundups and can chase horses to exhaustion.
Tom Gorey, a spokesman for BLM, said helicopters are the safest and most efficient way to gather herds. Gorey noted that a fall 2010 Interior inspector general report found the BLM gathers were "necessary" and humane (Land Letter, Dec. 16, 2010).
"If we were to go back trooping, chasing horses by saddle and lassoing, this would be an impossible operation to gather large numbers of horses," he said.
Moreover, in fiscal 2010, only one-quarter of 1 percent of the 11,000 horses gathered by BLM suffered direct fatalities, Gorey said.
He also rejected claims that BLM has overestimated the number of horses on the range, noting that a 2008 Government Accountability Office report suggested BLM has undercounted.
The population count and growth rate have long been a point of contention among horse advocates.
Caroline Betts, a professor at the University of Southern California who teaches international finance and macroeconomics, said she does not believe BLM's population estimates are accurate.
"None of the methods are not without possible statistical critique," she said. The agency extrapolates numbers based on the assumption that the herd will double every four years, but that assumption, when considering the number of horses that have been removed, would leave nearly a million horses on the range today, she said.
"Either the removal data is wrong or the 20 percent population growth is wrong," she said.
Such methodologies are the focus of a National Academy of Sciences review that will explore methods for population modeling, the annual rates of population growth, fertility control methods and carrying capacity of various lands to support wild horse herds, among other things. The study is due out in 2013.
BLM has also announced that it plans to dramatically increase its use of fertility control -- a method favored by both horse advocates and ranchers -- while reducing gathers and increasing opportunities for horses to be adopted.