LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Advocates are skeptical of a new $2 million effort to find solutions to the ever-growing population of wild horses on Nevada’s ranges and elsewhere. But a Friday vote in Washington, D.C., is a step forward in bringing $11 million to help solve the problem.

A Bureau of Land Management (BLM) news release on Wednesday announced up to $2 million available for a variety of studies or research efforts.

“Fifteen years ago I might have applauded all the grants BLM seems to have money for each year. But after 15 years of watching BLM say they have no money for management planning, water improvements and staff?” asked Laura Leigh of the Wild Horse Education group.

Checkered past for research

“BLM used to fund cherry picked studies and there was outcry,” Leigh said. “Over the last several years BLM has been using these open funding opportunities to solidify a select group of ‘preferred partnerships’ and relationships that already existed prior to any solicitation.”

BLM proposes funding studies in three areas to help get control of a population of wild horses and burros that has ballooned to nearly 83,000 as of March, 2023:

  • Developing new or improving existing fertility control methods for wild horses
  • Examining the relationships between wild horses or burros and their environment (with special attention paid to climate change)
  • Further improving a variety of wild horse and burro program activities, including aerial surveys, genetic monitoring, animal handling, adoption rates and/or BLM’s understanding of indigenous knowledge or the human dimensions of wild horse and burro management.

“Thanks to support from Congress, the BLM has removed nearly 70,000 animals and treated nearly 5,600 with fertility control since 2018 as part of its strategy to reduce the threat to these animals caused by overpopulation, overgrazing and severe drought,” according to the BLM’s news release.

“During the same time period, the BLM also significantly increased the number of animals placed into private care, finding homes for more than 42,000 animals in support of its efforts to reduce overpopulation on the range,” the release said.

Helicopter controversy

But BLM continues to come under fire every year as it continues to use helicopters to herd wild horses, sometimes resulting in injuries, and ultimately death as the agency kills animals that can’t survive in the wild. U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., has fought to stop the use of helicopters.

Titus reintroduced the bipartisan Wild Horse and Burro Protection Act of 2023 in May, legislation that would eliminate the use of helicopters but “explore the benefits of alternative aircraft for humanely gathering horses” as well as using cowboys on horseback to handle the roundups.

Leigh’s group sued the BLM in July 2023 and filed a motion to stop the Antelope Complex roundup. The court didn’t halt the roundup — it was nearly finished anyway — despite publicity created by a video showing an injured horse nicknamed “Sunshine Man” being chased by a helicopter. The horse was eventually put to death. The roundup, split into north and south territories, ended with a total of 39 deaths — including 11 “acute” deaths that resulted from injuries that happened during the gathering operation.

The lawsuit against the BLM is still pending.

New developments

On Friday, advocates with the American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC) highlighted the Roberts Mountain Complex roundup, northwest of Eureka in Central Nevada. AWHC reported on Friday that 11 horses have been killed “including a stallion who suffered a horrific broken leg after escaping from a trap and seven horses who died after a government-contracted semi-truck flipped on its side.” Those seven horses aren’t counted in the BLM’s running log, which is at six as of Nov. 4.

AWHC issued a news release commending the efforts of Titus and others in Congress. On Friday, funding passed in a 213-203 vote for as much as $11 million in funding fertility control for wild horses.

The group noted that the BLM has historically spent less than 1% of its Wild Horse and Burro Program budget on fertility control.

The measure also urges the BLM “to consider alternatives to the use of helicopters and manned fixed-wing aircraft. This marks the first time that the Congress has urged BLM to consider alternatives to helicopters,” AWHC said.

“The measure also continues to call for partnerships with military veterans and wild horse organizations, and evaluating other on-range management options, such as relocation, that would keep horses and burros out of BLM holding facilities,” AWHC said.