On Wild Horses, the Secretary of the Interior Needs to Listen to the Scientists

Secretary Jewell seems to be willfully ignoring a report by the National Academy of Sciences. Why?
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The Bureau of Land Management rounds up horses with helicopters (Jim Urquhart/Reuters).

Nearly seven months into her tenure as Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell last Thursday at last made her first extended public comments about one of the most controversial and under-reported aspects of her portfolio as steward of the nation's public lands. Speaking at the National Press Club, she addressed in detail a question about the nation's beleaguered wild horses, which in the past few years have been rounded up by the tens of thousands from those public lands and dispatched to vast holding facilities at great cost to the American taxpayer (and to the great benefit of the ranching and livestock industries).

It was not an auspicious debut. Jewell did not directly answer the question posed to her. And the affirmative statement she did make about the herds was unsupported by key facts revealed in June in a report by the National Academy of Sciences that was sharply critical of Bureau of Land Management's practices and policies toward the horses. She offered a series of platitudes—e.g. "So we are working on it. And we are going to work on it"—while wild horses are being sold to slaughter in contravention of federal law and policy. Time is of the essence here but there was no hint of urgency in the Secretary's remarks. 

There are two explanations for the Secretary's performance and neither can be seen as encouraging for wild horse advocates (or fans of good governance in general, for that matter). The first is that, despite her extensive scientific background, Jewell does not grasp the essence of the scientific criticism the NAS has offered about the BLM's work. And the second is that she does grasp the extent of the problem the NAS identified—she has done her homework—but that she has neither the political desire nor the bureaucratic will to implement the reforms the scientists suggest. Either way, from an Obama Administration official who talks a great deal about conservation and the environment, who says she is a friend to animals and no tool to corporate interests, it doesn't bode well for the federally-protected horses.

The National Academy of Sciences Report

It has been exactly five months since the National Academy of Sciences released its long-awaited report titled "Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program." In it, some of the nation's leading scientists were direct and unambiguous about the failures of the BLM to administer the horses: "The Wild Horse and Burro Program has not used scientifically rigorous methods to estimate the population sizes of horses and burros, to model the effects of management actions on the animals, or to assess the availability and use of forage on range lands," the scientists concluded.

In other words, after years of speculation and debate, the NAS concluded that the BLM was using both bad math and faulty science to justify one of its most controversial (and expensive) wild horse management practices. Wild horse advocates have long argued, for example, that the herds don't have nearly the negative impact on range lands that cattle and sheep do. Nor, advocates have long claimed, has the BLM accurately counted the number of wild horses on public lands or properly evaluated ways in which more horses can safely be kept there.

The NAS Report in June did not prove these allegations to be true. But at the very least it cast serious doubt on the arguments the BLM (and the ranching and livestock industries) have made in support of the current practices.  It raises profound questions, in other words, about whether the advocates are right about the BLM and the need for its overhaul. Also relevant to Thursday's public comments by Jewell was this part of the NAS Report that explained what the BLM was doing wrong and how federal officials could remedy the problem:

Promising fertility-control methods are available to help limit this population growth, however. In addition, science-based methods exist for improving population estimates, predicting the effects of management practices in order to maintain genetically diverse, healthy populations, and estimating the productivity of rangelands. Greater transparency in how science-based methods are used to inform management decisions may help increase public confidence in the Wild Horse and Burro Program.

Since June, I have repeatedly asked Secretary Jewell, through her spokeswoman, to respond to the National Academy's work. I have asked the secretary, again through a spokeswoman, to respond more generally to the plight of the nation's wild horses as they become more and more vulnerable to mistreatment or slaughter. Over and over again those requests have been declined. I was told to be patient, that the secretary was working through the NAS Report, and that the time would come when there would be a substantive response. Evidently, that time has come.

July On Capitol Hill

To put into better perspective last week's comments by Secretary Jewell, I need to briefly digress. First, Secretary Jewell said she wanted to wait for the results of the NAS Report before commenting upon the plight of the wild horses. Then, on July 17th, she appeared at a hearing on Capitol Hill just a few weeks after the NAS Report was issued. At the time, she had an exchange with Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona with a long history of sense and sensibility toward the nation's wild horses. He framed his question to her the following way:

Madame Secretary, the Wild Horse and Burro program managed by BLM has been a persistent source of criticism, controversy, and I believe in need of serious reform and an overhaul.  And much of that criticism that has been leveled at the program was reaffirmed by an independent review by the National Academy of Sciences.

And so in light of that independent review, do you see a need to restructure the program in order to both save money and, just as importantly, guarantee humane treatment of Wild Horses and Burros in that program?

And here is how Secretary Jewell responded at the time:

Congressman Grijalva, it's a very difficult situation. Yes, the National Academy of Sciences program validated one of the concerns that the BLM has had which is the 20 percent per year reproduction rate of Wild Horses and Burros and the way that program is currently being handled. It's very expensive and very challenging.

So we're reviewing the report in detail, things like contraception figuring out what our options will be and certainly, the goal would be to address this in a way that's more effective than what has been done on the past. And I know that BLM is committed to doing that.

October at the National Press Club

Now, fast forward to last week. Speaking at the National Press Club, Jewell was asked the following question by wild horse advocates (through an intermediary at the podium):

The National Academy of Sciences released a review almost 150 days ago on the BLM’s controversial wild horse program, saying “continuation of business-as-usual practices will be expensive and unproductive for BLM and the public it serves.” Does the Interior Department and BLM intend to embrace the reforms included the report and if so when-- or would they not.

She responded:

Well, the question about how we effectively manage the wild horse and burro program is one that people feel very passionately about on both sides of the issue. It’s difficult. There isn’t a Secretary of the Interior that I have talked to, and I have talked to them going back to the 1970s, that hasn’t been aware of this issue and struggled with this issue. So I want to start by saying “It’s not easy. It’s actually quite difficult.”

 The National Academies of Sciences gave us a report. It was very helpful in a couple of ways. One is, it validated what our land managers know, which is horses are really good at reproducing. Twenty percent a year. That means the herd doubles in size every three-and-a-half years. That’s a lot of horses and, providing they have forage, that gives them an opportunity to continue to grow very dramatically and not in a sustainable way, which the National Academy of Sciences also pointed out.

Birth control is an alternative that the National Academy of Sciences report suggested and we are certainly supportive of that. The challenge is, in the veterinary world of pharmaceuticals you don’t have the same controls or the same products as you do in the human world of pharmaceuticals, and we would love to have a stronger partnership with the pharmaceutical industry to come up with a more effect birth control method than what’s already out there because it’s very expensive and it doesn’t work for a very long period of time and, oh by the way, you have get the horses there to give them the birth control.

I know there are some things you can do with stallions, too, but I won’t get into that (Laughter). So this is a big issue. It’s an issue that’s been around for decades. It’s an issue that we care about, that we want to manage on (sic) a sustainable way. We are not going to be able to fix it overnight. The National Academy of Sciences gave us some good data. We have budget constraints. We have all kinds of alternatives that we are considering. So we are working on it. We are going to continue to work on it. And I would love this to be a call-to-action to the pharmaceutical industry to help us develop an effective birth control method that we can use on horses that would I think help this problem get solved.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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