A panel of experts chosen to spend two years generating the definitive study on wild horse management in the West is kicking up controversy before it even gets out of the chute.
Mustang protection advocates contend the committee charged with solving a conundrum that has eluded consensus for decades is stacked with allies of the livestock industry who won't give the horses a fair shake.
The panel's 14 members were picked by the National Academy of Sciences, an independent organization chartered by Congress to advise the government on science. Their first meeting is set for Thursday in Reno.
The American Wild Horse Protection Campaign, Cloud Foundation and others say several of the appointees are outspoken defenders of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's current management strategy that relies on "mass wild horse roundups and removals at the expense of on-the-range management strategies.'"
"The heart of the controversy surrounding the wild horse issue is the conflict between private livestock and wild horses on the 11 percent of BLM land that is designated as wild horse habitat," said Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Protection Campaign, a coalition of environmental, public interest and animal rights organizations.
The public's need for an accurate, objective review of the government's controversial wild-horse management program will not be served unless the National Academy of Sciences corrects the panel's "imbalances," Roy said.
Academy spokesman Bill Kearney said the organization's staff and legal counsel will investigate any concerns about conflicts and consider disqualifying members or adding new ones to provide additional expertise.
The BLM asked the academy earlier this year to assemble the panel of wildlife biologists, rangeland ecologists and others to review the program at an estimated cost of $1.2 million, after prodding from members of Congress critical of the roundups. The agency, which plans to round up another 6,000 horses in the coming months, argues the gathers are necessary to ease ecological damage on the range.
Opponents maintain the horse numbers are much lower than historical highs and that the roundups are intended to appease ranchers who don't want the mustangs competing with their cattle and sheep for limited forage on arid rangeland.
The committee is tasked with producing a comprehensive study that addresses, among other things, total herd populations, genetic diversity, appropriate management levels, and population control options including immunocontraception and "managing a portion of a population as non-reproducing," according to the academy's website.
Committee members under fire include Dr. David Thain, former Nevada state veterinarian who is an assistant professor in the Department of Agriculture, Nutrition and Veterinary Sciences at the University of Nevada Reno.
Thain is a member of the Nevada Livestock Association _ a "clear conflict of interest," said Ginger Kathrens, executive director of the Colorado-based Cloud Foundation.
Thain also has published research on two drugs used to control horse fertility that some horse advocates dislike for fear of side effects, Roy said. He has a "vested academic interest in promoting specific fertility control agents" and therefore is not an objective committee member, she said.
Thain told The Associated Press he was familiar with the criticisms but felt it was best not to respond.
Other panel members targeted by critics include Erik Beever, a research landscape ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center in Bozeman, Mont., and Paul Krausman, a wildlife biologist in the University of Montana's College of Forestry and Conservation in Missoula.
Beever is a member and Krausman the president-elect of the Wildlife Society, a national professional scientific group that Roy said has taken an advocacy role in defending BLM roundups.
Beever declined to comment directly on the groups' criticism. He said he didn't know the majority of the panel members but felt the ones he did know would be impartial. He said he got the impression that concern about the possible appearance of a conflict was the reason the BLM asked the academy to do the review as an "independent, impartial, scientific institution."
"In inquiries to me, it seemed that they were seeking to achieve as much balance in terms of the disciplinary expertise as they possibly could," he said Friday in an email to AP.
Krausman referred questions to academy staff.
Nevada has roughly half of the 33,000 wild horses that freely roam 10 Western states. Another 40,000 horses are being housed in short- and long-term holding facilities in the West and Midwest _ a costly practice that has helped force the new search for solutions.
Over the 2010 fiscal year, holding costs accounted for $36.9 million, or 57 percent, of the BLM wild horse and burro program's $63.9 million budget.
BLM spokesman Tom Gory said the agency has taken a "hands-off" approach to the committee's review.
"We don't have any control over any selections," he said.
At the panel's first meeting Thursday, members will listen to presentations from a number of experts then take public comment.
On Friday, the committee will hold an executive-session meeting, which will be closed to the public. The session will include a discussion about "conflict of interest and bias" and whether the committee is appropriately balanced from a scientific perspective, said Kearney, the academy spokesman.
"It's not unusual after the first meeting to add a member or two for balance, or find additional expertise in an area where committee members may be lacking," Kearney said.