By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - A federal agency working to rein in the population of wild horses in the West should rely more on fertility control than roundups because it would be more effective, a National Academy of Sciences review said on Wednesday.
The critique of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) handling of 37,300 free-ranging horses and burros also faulted the agency for a lack of transparency and public involvement in key decisions about the federally protected animals.
An independent panel at the National Academy of Sciences conducted a two-year assessment at the request of the BLM, amid growing controversy surrounding a program that authorizes roundups, adoptions and sale of thousands of wild horses, also called mustangs, and burros.
The roundups in 10 western U.S. states are popular with ranchers, who see the efforts to curb wild herds as a means to ensure their sheep and cattle have enough grass to feed on. Groups in support of wild horses point to inhumane roundups that routinely injure and sometimes kill animals.
The National Academy of Sciences report found the BLM's roundups of horses and burros were counterproductive because in the long-run they decreased competition for food and resulted in higher birth and survival rates.
The panel of scientists urged federal horse managers to curb herds through increased use of fertility control, such as vaccines shot by dart at female horses, rather than roundups and removals. The BLM currently allocates to fertility control on wild herds only a fraction of what it spends on roundups.
The BLM, which is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, says Western public lands - leased for everything from cattle grazing to oil and gas exploration - can support 26,500 wild horses in states from Idaho to Nevada.
Wild horses unlikely to be adopted or sold are shipped to open-air enclosures that contain 50,000 animals, or nearly 13,000 more than roam free. The roundups, removals and warehousing of mustangs last year consumed much of the bureau's $75 million budget for managing wild horses and burros.
Neil Kornze, the bureau's principal deputy director, said in a statement that the agency was in agreement with the panel's view that "no quick or easy fixes exist to this pressing issue."
He added that the bureau agreed that investments in science-based approaches and alternatives like fertility control could reduce costs and boost public confidence.
Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, said her group supports the conclusions of the scientific report.
"We're calling on the Bureau of Land Management to immediately halt roundups and removals and implement a sustainable and humane program that treats wild horses and burros in the way the public demands," she said.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Cynthia Osterman)