Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Points to Consider: Wild Horse and Burro Mortality

Straight from the Horse's Heart

Original article by Lisa LeBlanc ~ SFTHH Investigative Journalist ~ with acknowledgments to Robert Bauer

BLM’s Skewed Math Rocks On

photo by Terry Fitch
Save for the wolf, few animals living wild on what’s left of the West’s ‘wide open’ spaces engender as much contention as wild equines. To some, they are iconic, tough and unfettered living anchors to our past, worthy of respect and preservation. To others, they are competitors for scarce rangeland resources, to be stringently controlled through mandates and policies and inevitably, removals. Procedural documents outline reasons for proposed removals of Wild Equines from a home range; most allude to the lack of available forage or limited water resources. Nearly all cite the absence of predators and the vast proclivity toward over-breeding of these long-lived species as compelling cause for removals.
But there are other factors, either missing or ignored, that contribute to the concept of stability in populations on the range and the uncertainty of what may languish in Holding. While this report is arguably biased, it’s purpose is to perhaps focus attention on those factors, to address critical errors and as an aid toward a truer assessment of what may actually exist – in Holding and On The Range – and why.
It is a natural and indisputable truth: All living things die. In the matter of Wild Equines, the accepted rates of mortality vary to a great extent. Beginning with foals, their first year is the most profound in terms of loss. One of the original National Academy of Sciences studies published in 1980 cited a 92% survival rate among foals, or a loss of 8%; while other rates in the study fluctuate widely, 8% seems to have been adopted as the norm. For those that survive their first critical year, mortality drops. According to the Bureau of Land Management’s “Strategic Research Plan/Wild Horse and Burro Management” , p. 12, estimated survival rates in adult Wild Equines ’exceed 95% annually’ and appear to remain constant during formative years and reproduction. Survival rates begin to lessen again for adults entering their late teens and twenties.
While mortality is acknowledged, there are no distinctions made from populations to fully quantify loss. If an average 5% loss were applied to an existing wild population, without age-related considerations – simply an ’average’ – nearly 2,000 animals could perish in a single year. The larger the population, the higher the loss. If calculating, year to year, only a 5% loss from published, on the range populations, roughly 20,357 animals have died since 2000. Of the 38,400 Wild Equines declared by the Bureau of Land Management for 2010, it’s conceivable a loss of 1,920 Wild Equines occurred – on the range, out of sight – newborns and elders, yearlings separated from their herds, non-survivable injuries sustained in competition or as the result of accidents, other natural stressors inherent in a wild environment or illegal culling .
Losses in captivity mirror closely those on the range. Published accounts generally recognize a 3% – 5% loss in Long Term Pastures, which allow free-roaming behavior and grazing, contributing to longevity. But not immortality. Calculating the average (4%) loss from Long Term Pasture’s largely-aged population of 27,570 (Wild Horse and Burro Numbers in Holding Facilities, Report Date 02/22/11), it’s possible a loss of 1,100 animals – 61 horses per Long Term Pasture - could occur over the course of a year.
Assuming only an ‘average’ 4% cumulative loss in all Holding facilities for the past 10 years, 7,360 animals have likely died. However, this is a conservative estimate; while Long Term Pastures allow for a more natural existence, Short Term and Maintenance facilities are considerably smaller environments, plagued by fundamental hazards: Serious injuries requiring euthanasia often occur from fractious animals living together in close quarters. Free-roaming behavior is curtailed; exercise diminished. Surgeries routinely go wrong. Unattended deaths of unknown origin occur. Even if painstaking attempts at sanitation were employed, it would not purge the bacteria, viruses and communicable diseases or food-borne ailments from the dirt or mud floor of a much-used enclosed pen. Particularly for vulnerable initiate animals, their natural defenses stressed by the processes of capture, unable to stave off illness or adjust to a foreign food. For Short Term and Maintenance Facilities, an 8% to 10% mortality rate might be more reasonable.
And though Holding Facility reports state 40,811 animals (as of 2/11) in Short & Long Term Holding, there appears to be no reporting method for animal mortality in Holding, simply the long, uninterrupted line of accumulation. Regarding cumulative losses, animals in Holding could be as few as 33,450 with variances possible from foals captured or born in captivity; that data also remains elusive and difficult to track.
It may be important to note that, while 40,811 animals - the approximation between what’s been removed and what’s been adopted – have been processed into Holding facilities over the past decade, the likelihood all continue to survive in the intervening years simply isn’t realistic.These figures must be accurate, with losses reported and accessible, particularly in light of summary granting of enormous budgetary requests which cite the rising cost of care and feeding of Wild Equines accrued – but that may no longer exist.
But it’s also vital to bear in mind – Wild Equines are not simply digits to be calculated or robotics to be modeled. There is a distinctiveness in these lives that should require recognition beyond theory or estimate. In decisions made which govern their existence in the wild, consideration should be given to them as living citizens of their home ranges and not simply as key strokes and statistics. And in Holding, their deaths should be accepted as fact, the losses defined - not exploited further.
All living things die; Wild Equines, whether free-roaming or in captivity, are no exception.

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