Roundup and relocation of wild horses not working

I think I’ve finally found something cattle ranchers and horse huggers agree on: The Bureau of Land Management is doing it wrong.

It doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to recognize the challenge the BLM has managing the West’s wild horse herds, most of which roam in Nevada. But a lack of a scientific approach is precisely one of the BLM’s deficiencies, an independent study of the complex environmental and political issue by the National Academy of Sciences has found.

The U.S. government, with the BLM riding herd, has relocated more than 100,000 horses in the past decade in an attempt to protect habitat, control overpopulation and appease ranchers and wild horse advocates.

Not surprisingly, the animals left behind keep making more horses. Although it’s tempting to wonder aloud whether the government understands how this is happening, the more important point is that it’s obvious even to the untrained observer the current system of roundup and relocation isn’t working.

Unless, of course, the goal is BLM job security.

Despite some critical findings, the BLM put a happy face on the report critics have called scathing.

The bureau’s Principal Deputy Director Neil Kornze enthused, “We commend the National Academy of Sciences for their diligent work on this complex issue. The BLM looks forward to reviewing the report in detail and building on the report’s findings and recommendations to meet the formidable challenges facing the agency in managing wild horses and burros. Our agency is committed to protecting and managing these iconic animals for current and future generations.

“The BLM shares the committee’s view that although no quick or easy fixes exist to this pressing issue, investments in science-based management approaches, exploring additional opportunities for population control, and increased transparency could lead to a more cost-effective program that manages wild horses and burros with greater public confidence.”

A BLM spokesman told a Southern Nevada radio station, “We’re please to have the results. … There are no quick or easy fixes to the various management issues. We look forward to looking at implementing everything that makes sense.”

But “implementing everything that makes sense” to a government agency might not “make sense” to the various and vocal groups whose opinions on wild horses range from issuing the animals contraception to using them for dog food.

In addition to calling for greater transparency, the NAS observed: “Evidence suggests that horse populations are growing by 15 to 20 percent each year, a level that is unsustainable for maintaining healthy horse populations as well as healthy ecosystems. However, promising fertility-control methods are available to help limit this population growth. In addition, science-based methods exist for improving population estimates and predicting the effects of management practices in order to maintain genetically diverse, healthy populations, and estimating the productivity of rangelands.” (The 461-page NAS report is available online at

Not exactly an endorsement of business-as-usual at the BLM Ranch.

Those who favor the status quo might have cringed at recent headlines vilifying the BLM, but they also know that even the most scathing indictments from the most credible academies fade quickly in the media and are far more likely to gather dust on a shelf than generate action in the halls of Congress.

Will this time be different?

Like many Nevadans, I appreciate our state’s identity as a place wild horses still run and are protected. But at some point someone in authority is going to have to step up and admit the roundups haven’t worked.

My proposal is simpler and probably proves why no one at the NAS has asked me to join their group.

I say keep the waterholes open and let nature take care of the rest.

It’s unscientific. But it makes more sense than asking a federal bureaucracy to play reluctant cowboy.

Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a daily column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702 383-0295 or