A wild mare suffered a broken neck last month after colliding with a pen during a taxpayer-funded helicopter roundup in Utah’s Swasey Herd Management Area. After she died, wranglers dragged her away with chains.

The shocking image of a federally protected animal being treated like trash sparked immediate public outcry and spotlighted the federal government’s seriously flawed approach to “managing” wild horses.

Wild horses are protected under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which Congress unanimously passed to allow mustangs to flourish in their natural habitats. But in recent years, the Bureau of Land Management — the federal agency charged with overseeing America’s wild horses — has moved to eliminate large portions of designated wild horse habitat, round up thousands of horses annually, and curb population levels through inhumane, inefficient methods.

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Utah is home to some of the country’s most iconic herds, such as the Onaqui herd near Salt Lake City, yet the state could prove to be the next battleground for controversial BLM strategies being rolled out across the West. In June, the BLM released a proposal to surgically sterilize wild mares in the Confusion Herd Management Area, which comprises more than 293,000 acres in Millard and Juab counties and is home to an estimated 551 horses.

While the BLM has provided assurances that horses will be “humanely sterilized,” the specific method that could be used, ovariectomy via colpotomy, involves the blind insertion of a metal rod through a vaginal incision to sever and crush a mare’s ovaries while the animal remains conscious and alert during the painful procedure. 

Ovariectomy via colpotomy is rarely performed on horses, as the risks can be serious — hemorrhaging, evisceration, infection and even death, according to scientific research. In 2013, the National Academy of Sciences specifically advised the BLM not to utilize the ovariectomy via colpotomy method given the risks of trauma and infection.

Starting in 2016, the BLM proposed a research experiment to assess the safety and efficacy of performing ovariectomies on wild horses in the Warm Springs Herd Management Area in Oregon. The surgeries were to be conducted in a corral in nonsterile conditions (by the BLM’s own admission). In one version of the study, the agency sought to quantify the incidence of aborted fetuses from performing the surgery on pregnant mares.

The proposal prompted veterinarians from across the United States to join a chorus of lawmakers and an overwhelming majority of Americans condemning the surgical sterilization experiments.

“Not only is ovariectomy via colpotomy far more invasive, inhumane, and risky than other nonsurgical methods of fertility control, it is also more invasive and inhumane than the techniques that veterinarians use on domestic horses in the rare circumstances where some form of ovariectomy is clinically necessary,” 80 veterinarians wrote in an October letter to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt.

The Oregon experiments are now stalled after two major academic institutions withdrew their support for the project and a federal court issued a preliminary injunction against the BLM in 2018, citing — among other concerns — a lack of independent veterinary observation.

Now, with this latest Utah proposal, the BLM is attempting to bypass the research route entirely, and instead directly integrate ovariectomies into its fertility control plans without evaluating the overall safety and efficacy of the procedure. What’s more, the BLM is again seeking to carry out surgical sterilizations away from public view.

From a practical standpoint, it is highly doubtful that the BLM would be able to recruit and train enough veterinarians to perform ovariectomies given the steep learning curve associated with these procedures. In 2015, for instance, researchers convened by the agency cited lack of veterinary experience as a major factor that caused a donkey to bleed to death from an ovariectomy training exercise in Arizona.

Still, the BLM continues to aggressively pursue this option. Acting Director William Perry Pendley recently called wild horses an “existential threat” to our public lands, which seems far-fetched considering that equines are significantly outnumbered by livestock. Grazing receipts from recent years show that cattle outnumber horses anywhere from 28 to 1 to over 90 to 1 on BLM land.

The Confusion Herd Management Area’s estimated population of 551 wild horses roughly translates to one horse for every 533 acres of designated habitat. However, the BLM plans to slash the herd to 70 horses — an “appropriate management level” that the agency set in 1987. This absurdly low number constitutes about 60% of the minimum population recommended by scientists to preserve a herd’s genetic viability. 

Meanwhile, livestock in Utah graze on nearly 10 times the number of BLM-managed acres — 22 million — compared to the amount of land allocated to wild horses. That the BLM hasn’t updated the Confusion Herd Management Area’s target wild horse population in more than 30 years only reinforces the idea that wild horse protection is a mere afterthought to federal regulators, not a statutory mandate.

Ultimately, the BLM is charged with maintaining horses as self-sustaining populations, preventing their harassment and death, and managing herds at the “minimal feasible level.” The agency should take these directives to heart, instead of promoting risky, ill-conceived solutions.

Joanna Grossman is equine program manager for the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C.