Backing away from a plan to castrate wild stallions that has incensed environmental groups, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Friday announced it will instead use a birth-control drug on mares to reduce the growth of wild horse herds in southwestern Wyoming.
The agency earlier this week informed a federal judge in Washington, D.C., that it was dropping its plan to capture and castrate hundreds of wild stallions in the area between Rock Springs and La Barge in response to a legal challenge from environmentalists.
The agency said the total population of roughly 1,000 wild horses in the White Mountain/Little Colorado herd management areas is roughly three times more than it should be. Private livestock operators, as well as Gov. Matt Mead, are concerned about the horses' effect on the range.
The BLM had planned to round up nearly 900 wild horses, castrate the stallions and release 177 geldings back to the range. It called for putting the rest of the captured horses up for adoption or sale or sending them to long-term holding sites.
In its modified decision, the BLM said it still plans to round up nearly 900 horses, although it's planning to move the start of the roundup from mid-August to Sept. 1.
The agency plans to send nearly 700 of the horses to holding facilities. It would release the rest after the mares receive a birth-control drug. Only the relative handful of wild mares that escaped capture would continue to breed for up to about four years, the life of the drug.
The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, the Western Watersheds Project and environmentalists in Wyoming and Colorado had challenged the original castration plan, suing to block its implementation. The groups argued that the BLM adopted the plan without adequate review and that it would violate federal law by not leaving viable horse herds.
Suzanne Roy, with the preservation campaign in North Carolina, said her group hopes the BLM's legal defeat teaches the agency that it shouldn't propose to castrate wild horses. She said the agency was considering the method in other roundups planned for Wyoming, Oregon and Nevada.
Roy said her group and the other plaintiffs were considering whether they could expand their lawsuit, which is pending before U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington, to try to get a blanket ban against wild horse castration or take some other approach.
"Our concern is that they withdrew this plan here, because clearly they can see the problems with it legally from the perspective of the lack of any analysis whatsoever," Roy said. "But our concern is that they can just try to implement it elsewhere."
Roy said her group finds the birth-control approach acceptable because, unlike the castration plan, it wouldn't change the animals' behavior. Overall, she said she believes the BLM should reduce sheep and livestock grazing on public lands rather than target wild horses.
The Rock Springs Grazing Association recently filed a separate federal lawsuit seeking to force the federal government to remove all wild horses on roughly 2 million acres of private land, including some of the area where the roundups are planned. The association said wild horses are damaging private lands.
Cindy Wertz, public affairs specialist for the BLM in Cheyenne, said no decision has been made on whether to try to castrate stallions in two other roundups scheduled later this year in Wyoming.
Wertz said the BLM has used the birth-control drug on mares before and said it was planning to gather some next week to see how well it worked.
"Our goal is always to remove the excess wild horses in a safe and humane way, and we want to get down to the appropriate management level for that area, this is how we're going forward with that," Wertz said.