Burros are among my favorite of the animals residing at our Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, with their long ears and friendly stares. We have a couple hundred of rescued burros there, and visitors seem to have a special fascination with them, too. As with all of the animals at the ranch, they've landed there because of some tale of woe – in most instances, because the burros have gotten a raw deal from the federal government, which manages, or mismanages, their populations on the vast reaches of public lands in the West.
Under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, the federal government, through the Bureau of Land Management, is mandated to maintain populations of wild horses and burros in the 11 western states where they live. There are only about 40,000 wild horses and only 8,000 burros, and three quarters of the horses are in just two states – Nevada and Wyoming. The remaining states have relatively small populations, typically with 3,000 or fewer animals. There are millions of cattle and sheep on those federal lands, yet ranchers complain of too many wild equids.
The government has been rounding up and removing horses and burros, ostensibly to control these wild populations and minimize their ecological impact. In the process, the feds have been building a captive equine population now in the tens of thousands, at short-term and long-term holding facilities. Just last week, the BLM released new information that its personnel and contractors would round up nearly 2,400 more wild horses and burros this year. The cost of the round ups and housing and feeding the animals is now cannibalizing about two-thirds of the budget for the program, which has been widely regarded through the years as a case study of mismanagement.
For years, we have pressed the Bureau of Land Management, which runs the program, to focus instead on fertility programs to manage populations – a solution that the National Academy of Sciences also recommended in a report commissioned by the BLM. The BLM has been slow to implement the recommendations of the NAS.
Now, in what can only be described as a case example of poor decision-making, BLM is undertaking a pilot program with the Department of Defense and Heifer International and intends to allow the transport of 100 burros to residents in Guatemala, for use as working animals. While burros have been traditionally used for this purpose, this use is at odds with the provisions of WFHBA, which requires that the BLM's first priority has to be the humane treatment of wild burros in their care.
We are not insensitive to the difficult and challenging lives of people and animals in Guatemala and other developing countries, and we acknowledge the value and importance of working animals worldwide. Through Humane Society International (HSI) and the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Program (HSVMA) affiliates, we have a robust and proactive assistance program that helps provide veterinary care and other resources in these countries. But Guatemala has burros of its own, and does not need shipments of burros compliments of the BLM – a practice that simply relieves pressure on BLM to revamp its program and protect our nation's heritage of responsibly managing wild horses and burros.
We do work with BLM, through our Platero Project, to adopt out burros to suitable owners. So far this year we have placed 190 burros and we remain committed to getting more burros placed in good, local homes. Ultimately though, the solution must be on-the-ground management through fertility control, to obviate the costly and dangerous round-ups and removals and to prevent the population boom of horses and burros in captive holding facilities.