How did Spratling get involved with the advisory panel? "I'm in Nevada, where we have more than half of the horses in long-term
holding, and they knew I have experience so they call on me," he tells DVM Newsmagazine.
When the BLM determines there's a need to gather some of the free-roaming horses to cull the herds, Spratling often rides
with agents in a helicopter to help them make the selections.
"Of 200 managed areas in the West, all but one or two have established approved management levels (a number considered optimum
for the land to support). In Nevada, right now we have about 6,000 horses over that amount," Spratling says. "We're sitting
at about about 18,000 on lands where there should be 12,000, certainly no more than 15,000. And in another four months there
will be another foal crop, so the herds will jump another 20 percent or so."
To add to the problem, Spratling says he's seen a number of abandoned domesticated horses running with the feral horses —
a sure reflection of the down economy that has caused owners in many states to relinquish or abandon horses because they can
no longer afford to care for them.
"I've spotted many with saddle marks and shoes out here. Some will assimilate into the herds, but many won't, especially geldings.
They won't fit in as well socially. And many will have a rough winter because they don't know how to get what they need."
Not everyone agrees that there are too many horses on the lands available. Some advocacy groups, in newsletters and blogs,
claim that the BLM inflates the numbers, one even suggesting that horses have at times been purposely driven from one area
to another to create the appearance of overcrowding. Some also question the costs the BLM reports, while others say there
are federal lands taken away from horses and given over for cattle grazing.
The BLM takes issue with such assertions. "If anything, the agency undercounts the free-roaming horse and burro population," says Tom Gorey, BLM senior public affairs specialist in Washington. "We count
only what we see, and that actually results in an undercount. Any allegation that our agency inflates the population figures
is at worst disinformation or at best misinformation."
As for the claim that there are other lands available for the horses, Gorey says there is virtually no such land that can
provide year-round forage for a suitable habitat.
"It's an irony that some of these (advocacy) groups blame grazing for all the problems," Spratling adds. "Getting rid of cows
is not a solution. Horses can eat themselves out of house and home; they simply exceed in number what food is available."
Gorey points to an independent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report last year, titled "Effective Long-Term Options
Needed to Manage Unadoptable Wild Horses," calling it an unbiased report that supports the BLM. That report, available on
the GAO Web site, says the BLM has made "significant progress" toward setting and meeting the appropriate management levels
of wild herds, and that it is committed to improving its direct-count method, which currently results in an undercount of
The GAO points out that the 1971 law allows the option of humanely euthanizing animals that are unadoptable or to sell "without
limitation" (meaning that slaughter is an option) horses older than 10 and those younger that have been passed over for adoption
at least three times, based on a 2004 amendment. It recommends that the bureau should initiate discussions with Congress on
addressing the BLM's noncompliance with these directives.
While humane euthanasia and selling without limitation for possible transport to slaughter are legal options, "there's no
appetite for euthanasia or slaughter," says Spratling.
The advisory board on which he sits last met in Reno in November, approving 19 recommendations to the BLM, among them the
following: that "as a last resort" sale-eligible animals not sold or adopted after 30 days be offered for sale without limitation
or be humanely euthanized, that all emergency gathers have a veterinarian present and that animals showing signs of disease
or stress that could make them susceptible to life-threatening illness when moved to a holding facility also be humanely euthanized.
Euthanasia is to be performed only by a veterinarian or under a DVM's supervision, following American Veterinary Medical Association
(AVMA) guidelines and in compliance with state veterinary practice acts and laws.
The euthanasia measure had only one dissenting vote, from the wild-horse advocacy representative.
At that November meeting, the advisory board also heard from Mrs. T. Boone Pickens, wife of the Texas oilman, who said she
is working with others to acquire enough land to provide permanent sanctuaries for free-roaming wild mustangs. Mrs. Pickens,
in a telephone conversation with DVM Newsmagazine, said she is vehemently opposed to horse slaughter.
The BLM will consider the advisory board's recommendations, and perhaps Mrs. Pickens' offer, at its next meeting, Feb. 23
in Reno. It can accept, reject or modify the recommendations.
"We could use a many more like Mrs. Pickens," Spratling says.
"But realistically, unless we control the horse populations outside (holding areas) to keep those areas sustainable, and manage
the numbers inside, we won't solve this problem. Good management ultimately is the key," he says.