The same day a judge scolded the Bureau of Land Management for a helicopter pilot's misconduct rounding up wild horses in Nevada, the agency's own task force quietly issued a report emphasizing the importance of keeping safe buffer zones between the mustangs and the airborne cowboys.
The American Association of Equine Practitioners BLM Task Force concluded in the 35-page report presented to BLM on Tuesday that the agency's care, handling and management practices "generally support the safety, health status and welfare of the animals" but did find several areas in need of improvement.
The 10-member team of veterinarians who visited the sites leveled their strongest criticism at the "unacceptable" conditions at an overcrowded holding facility in Herriman, Utah, where horses were forced to stand in a 4- to 8-inch deep mixture of mud and manure
They also recommended establishment of a uniform surgical anesthesia protocol at all horse management sites after an observation team witnessed horses appearing to suffer pain during castration at a holding facility in Palomino Valley north of Reno.
"A few horses did not appear to be in a full plane of surgical anesthesia when the scrotum was incised for the castration," the AAEP task force said. "This was evidenced by leg movement against the ropes that tied the hind's legs to the overhead beams."
AAEP issued a statement about the report that appeared on websites belonging to some horse industry and equine health organizations on Tuesday and Wednesday. But BLM didn't publicize the findings until spokesman Tom Gorey issued a statement Thursday afternoon.
"The Bureau of Land Management appreciates the thorough, objective report prepared by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), which was asked by the BLM to review the agency's care and handling of wild horses and burros at gathers, short-term holding corrals, and long-term holding pastures," Gorey said. "The BLM will review the recommendations of the AAEP and will continue its ongoing efforts to maintain and improve the health and welfare of wild horses and burros."
The first of the task force's dozen recommendations for improvements singled out the use of helicopters _ a matter that prompted U.S. District Judge Howard McKibben in Reno to grant an emergency order late Tuesday sought by horse protection advocates to keep helicopters a safe distance from the mustangs.
"While the task force thought the use of helicopters as observed during the gathers of horses from the range was humane, all contract helicopter pilots should adopt conservative flying patterns that allow a safe buffer distance between the helicopter and the horses and between the helicopter and the ground," the panel said.
McKibben issued the temporary restraining order Tuesday banning any mistreatment of mustangs like the Wild Horse Freedom Federation caught on camera earlier this month at the Triple B complex roundup in eastern Nevada near the Utah line.
BLM officials denied the group's claims that the helicopter pilot on the video actually struck a horse with a helicopter skid on Aug. 11. McKibben said it appeared to him the horse was hit with the skid but even if it wasn't, the helicopter flew "dangerously or unreasonably close" to the animals in violation of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971.
BLM asked AAEP in June 2010 to assemble the task force to evaluate the agency's wild horse and burro program. Founded in 1954, the group based in Lexington, Ky., has nearly 10,000 members made up of veterinarians and veterinary students.
Teams of three to four task force members visited BLM facilities and operations from October 2010 to March 2011. They observed gathers in southwest Wyoming, west-central Nevada and northeast Nevada. They also visited short-term holding facilities in Rock Springs, Wyo., Nevada and Utah and two long-term holding pastures in Oklahoma.
The study said the overcrowded Salt Lake Regional Wild Horse and Burro Center in Herriman is a poorly designed holding facility where pens were built on the sides of hills with poor drainage.
"At the time of the site visit, the ground was very muddy due to recent snowfall. All pens were very muddy with no covered shelter, no firm ground for the horses to stand or lie on, and the horses were standing in 4 to 8 inches of a mud/manure mixture and standing water ... creating unacceptable footing for the horses in pens," the report said.
The task force also noted that fewer horses are finding homes through the BLM's adoption program, which the report concluded has become a "welfare program."
"Many wild horses now live out their lives at government-supported, long-term holding facilities," the task force said.
It said the only way to avoid that in the future is to control reproductive rates on the range through fertility control methods, and it concluded: "Clearly the mission of the BLM program _ Health Ranges, Healthy Horses _ is not a simple one."