Wild horse, burro populations to be subject of BLM studies

Wild horse, burro populations to be subject of BLM studies

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SALT LAKE CITY — A trio of Utah field offices within the Bureau of Land Management plan to study wild horse and burro populations, including the potential sterilization of male animals.

Excess numbers of wild horses are generating controversy in Utah and across the West, with legislation introduced by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, that proposes to turn over management of the animals to the states.

Iron County Commissioner Dave Miller and Beaver County Commissioners Mark Whitney and Tammy Pearson are in Oklahoma City to speak to the BLM's National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, which is convening a two-day meeting Wednesday.

"Our objective is to make sure those who are involved in this know that we have serious serious problems that need to be addressed," Miller said. "Things have to be dealt with."

Both Iron and Beaver counties threatened to do their own roundups last summer, but backed off. A lawsuit by ranchers and other local leaders filed against the BLM over wild horse management is pending in federal courts.

The herd research is part of an effort by the federal agency to get more information on the animals to boost management approaches. Utah's studies are part of 21 research projects with $11 million in funding.

Representatives of the Price, Fillmore and Cedar City BLM offices are proposing to partner with the U.S. Geological Survey's Fort Collins Science Center to carry out several studies looking at the demography of burro and wild horse populations in certain herd management areas.

The agency said the research is in response to a 2013 National Academies of Science report commissioned by the BLM that found the government needed to use science-based approaches to solve the population dilemma.

In Utah, wild horse populations total about 3,245 — well above the preferred management goal of 1,946.

Two of the research proposals are focused on the Sinbad wild burro herd in the Price area, specifically looking at how surveys are conducted to arrive at the population and arrive at new ways for counts, in addition to the "ecology" of the animals and their rangeland.


The NAS report noted the absence of research on burro populations and emphasized that field research would improve management of the species.

The Frisco and Conger herd management areas, overseen by the Cedar City and Fillmore field offices, are also part of studies to be carried out. For the Conger herd specifically, the research will look at the impacts from sterilizing male horses and how that may affect the animals' behavior.

The national scientific study released in 2013 found that horse populations are growing at a rate of between 15 percent and 20 percent, and that the federal agency often uses subjective, inconsistent methods of determining an appropriation herd management level. The report said the agency may have under-counted the horses and burros by as much as 50 percent.

Current fertility methods, too, are limited in scope and wild horse roundups are expensive and controversial.

Nationally, the agency is responsible for 179 herd management areas that sprawl across nearly 32 million acres. In 2012, wild horses and burros in long-term holding pens numbered close to 50,000 — eclipsing the number of animals on the range.

In Utah, there are 20 distinct herd management areas and two that include burros. Earlier this year, the agency initiated its first ever use of fertility control using darts and targeting 50 mares in the Onaqui Herd in Tooele County. That herd's population sits at 321, well over management goals of 210 animals.

Gus Warr, Utah's director of the BLM's wild horse and burro program, said the studies will allow the agency to get solid information on burro numbers, possibly for the first time in the agency's history.

The burros represent a unique management program and are particularly hard to inventory given behavior that is far different than wild horse herds. While wild horses scatter and run during aerial surveys, burros tend to bunch up in clusters and hide. The animals also have different social structures from wild horses congregating in varying manners throughout the year, making counts difficult.

"It's exciting because we were up against a number of other states for an opportunity to do this research."

Public review and scoping period for some of the study proposals will begin early in the fall.

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Amy Joi O'Donoghue


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