PALOMINO VALLEY, Nev. — The top Democrat on a congressional panel on public lands is traveling to Nevada to get a firsthand look at a government corral used to temporarily house 1,500 mustangs recently gathered from federal rangeland.
Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, an outspoken critic of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's wild horse policies, planned a tour with horse protection advocates Wednesday afternoon at BLM's temporary holding facility in Palomino Valley north of Reno, where critics say animals have been treated inhumanely.
Grijalva said before the tour it makes no sense to spend tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to round up horses from their native range when the government has no room to store them. He said he's especially worried about recent research suggesting BLM roundups have the unintended consequence of actually increasing wild horse populations.
"I've been on this for six or seven years," said Grijalva, the ranking member of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on public lands and environmental regulation who was elected in 2002 in the 3rd District representing Tucson.
"With the additional independent reports that have come in regarding wild horse containment and roundups, this is an opportunity to turn the page," he told The Associated Press.
A 14-member panel assembled by the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council at the request of the BLM recommended in June that the agency move away from roundups and put more emphasis on the use of contraceptives and other methods of fertility control to manage horse populations. The committee concluded BLM's removal of nearly 100,000 horses from the Western range over the past decade is probably having the opposite effect of its intention to ease ecological damage and cull the herds.
By stepping in prematurely when food and water supplies remain adequate, and with most natural predators long gone, the land management agency is producing artificial conditions that ultimately serve to perpetuate population growth, the committee said in a 451-page report.
The number of animals at holding facilities surpassed the estimated number on the range in 10 Western states earlier this year for the first time since President Richard Nixon signed the Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. BLM estimates there are about 40,000 wild horses and burro on the range, about half of those in Nevada.
The scientific panel said the agency averaged removing 8,000 horses from the range annually from 2002 to 2011. Last year, it spent 60 percent of its wild horse budget on holding facilities alone, more than $40 million.
Grijalva said those findings have changed both the political and fiscal landscape of the debate over the fate of the federally protected horses.
"For a long time they've (BLM officials) said they are doing the best they can and these are the best practices they have, and now I think those practices come into sharp question," Grijalva said.
"I think it's all part of a demand that BLM look at new and different approaches that are more humane," he said.
BLM spokeswoman Erica Szlosek said the agency welcomes the congressman's visit. She said they continue to review the academy panel's recommendations.
"The NAS report did not call for an end to the gathers. It looked at different option on the range, population control, growth depression, those kinds of measures," she said Wednesday. "We've been reading the report and we are parsing out chapter by chapter different parts to different specialists at BLM to look at the range of possibilities."