RENO, Nev. — This is not Boyd Spratling’s first rodeo.
The new chairman of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board has seen a lot in his 35 years as a veterinarian in rural northeast Nevada. But he admits, he’s not sure what he’s gotten himself into this time.
“This is one of those jobs where you will think, ‘What was I thinking?”’ Spratling told the eight other members of the citizen panel who nodded knowingly after backing him for the hot seat at last week’s meeting in Reno.
The members of the advisory board face a complicated task of trying to balance the needs of the federally protected herds against competing interests of birds, livestock, ranchers and hunters while an ongoing drought and shrinking budgets limit their options.
“An incredibly difficult issue,” said Joan Guilfoyle, the new national director of the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program. “It is probably in my mind the No. 1 land-management, human-dimensions issue in the country.”
By the end of last week’s meeting, Spratling, of Deeth, Nev., was helping lead a complicated discussion of the latest research on reproductive drugs, vaccines and sterilization practices aimed at slowing the growth of horse herd populations that double naturally every five years if left unchecked.
The soaring cost of housing 47,000 horses removed from the range — significantly more than the 37,000 now estimated to be on public lands in 10 western states — has forced BLM to place more emphasis on population control and less on roundups. The $2 million in new spending within its $77 million budget for 2012 will be targeted at such research.
But in the meantime, the agency continues to struggle with myriad problems. Guilfoyle ticked off the biggest challenges, beginning with the fact the BLM believes there’s still 10,000 more mustangs on the range than it can ecologically sustain.
Horse advocates disagree. They argue livestock should be removed from the range at a faster pace than the horses, which they say have a legal right to be there under the Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971.
But Guilfoyle insisted, “There is still a need to remove them to protect the range.”
“Drought conditions are a big concern. Adoptions are still down,” she said. “Long-term holding space — we are having a challenge getting enough of it. Short-term holding space is expensive because gas and hay is rising.”
“Where do you put these animals? We only have so much money.”
And that doesn’t address the emotional attachment some have to the mustangs.
“Some people think of them as pets,” Guilfoyle said. “Some people think of think of them as wildlife, some think of them as livestock… some as pests. You have to remember it is viewed in so many different ways.”
Leaders of some horse advocacy groups identify Spratling, past president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, as one of the “pro-livestock, anti-horse” members of the committee.
Spratling, who also served as a state wildlife commissioner for 10 years, said he is a strong advocate of protecting wild horses but believes the top priority must be maintaining the health of the range. He said his critics “know they can elicit emotion and a lot of these organizations, very honestly, they are looking to raise contributions.”
Most controversial is the possibility of resorting to euthanizing or selling for slaughter some of the excess horses, especially the older ones. Current BLM policy — now under review by top administrators — requires those who purchase excess wild horses to sign papers promising they won’t resell them for slaughter.
And while the agency has declined to utilize the option to date, current law gives the agency the authority to sell those animals “without restriction” in cases of some older horses that are offered for adoption three times unsuccessfully.
Ken Brown, field director of the Western Counties Association based in Murray, Utah, was among those who urged the panel last week to “reinstate the slaughter program.”
Hugh Sanburg of the Colorado Farm Bureau said any horses held by the government in captivity for more than six months should be sold to the highest bidder “without limitation.”
But Ginger Kathrens, founder of Colorado-based horse advocacy group The Cloud Foundation, warned panel members they would be messing with fire.
“Any recognition of this board to dispose of the wild horses would result in an unprecedented storm of protest and would undermine the efforts of those in BLM who truly work to forge a partnership with the public,” she said.
Joel Blakeslee of the Coalition for Nevada Wildlife said he’s been following the issue since the 1970s and doesn’t see any solutions on the horizon.
“It’s all the same stuff we have talked about — adoptions, sterilizations,” he said. “Have we gotten anywhere in 40 years? I really kind of think we have not.”