The Realities of Adaptive Management

Most people who have an idea of how mustangs are being managed in the US know that current methods are not working. It’s been a long time practice to use helicopters to round-up the horses, and even the BLM is starting to realize that the way things are run are not sustainable. In what would seem like a good move the BLM is trying to do what is known as adaptive management, which means creative solutions to help the BLM manage horses efficiently. However, the “solutions” the BLM call for are permanent, such as removals, and sterilization, and once something becomes permanent, it is the opposite of adaptive.

The good news, is that before the BLM can make any management decision they have to give the American public an opportunity to make comments about the proposal. The bad news is, the BLM is not required to follow the recommendations the public request. It can be discouraging when it seems like the BLM isn’t willing to listen, but I think if advocates understand how the system works, they can make small steps to influencing it.

The first thing advocates need to do is be adaptable. Although different BLM Field Offices have different approaches to advocates, remember that they’re human too. If we expect them to compromise, then we have to be willing to compromise too. It is important to know one’s audience, and the best bet when responding to the BLM is to be objective. Each BLM Field Office manages the horses differently, so it is important for people to have done research about that specific location. The ideas that get the best response from the BLM, are objective science, rather than conjecture.

To get an idea for how more ideal adaptive management works, here are some examples from the Pryor Mountains. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to double-check dates, but since there’s no substitute for one’s own research in my book The Mustang Center, The Cloud Foundation, and Billings BLM websites are good resources if people want to look them up. In recent years, here’s how management in the Pryors goes: the Billings BLM shares their idea, the public hates it, the Billings BLM makes an even bigger decision the next year that could have been prevented with a little bit of compromise. For example, there was a year when the Billings BLM wanted to bait trap some horses, the public told them not to, so the Billings BLM did a helicopter round-up the next year instead.

More recently, advocates have been meeting with the Billings BLM to try to discuss management practices before the Billings BLM announces their decision. That way, in a more informal setting there is more room to compromise, and advocates have an idea of what the Billings BLM is thinking. The Billings BLM has been trying to move toward adaptive management, that this year they proposed increasing PZP, and bait trapping rather than using helicopters. While it’s true not all of the points are good in the long run, it’s steps in the right direction.

Which brings me to my next point. Advocates need to know which battles to pick. I hear talk of litigation too  many times, but unless advocates are absolutely sure they are in the legal right, then it usually just delays management. Thus wasting time and money that could be used reaching more attainable goals.

So, what works and what doesn’t? Using the Pryors as an example again, there are several different “baby steps” advocates can make. As I already mentioned, bait trapping is the substitute for helicopters. Eventually it is hoped PZP can prevent any removals. In an ideal world, PZP would be a short-term measure until enough land/resources can be given to the horses so they are at genetically viable levels.

As I have mentioned, compromising is key, but that doesn’t mean advocates should completely ignore their values. This brings me back to the definition of adaptive management. The best management tools are the ones that mimic natural selection. If horses must be removed, then careful bait trapping is the only option. Decisions need to be made using careful thought about long-term herd health, and genetic variability.

Permanent sterilization is not the answer. That is the starting point advocates need to make when compromising. Yes, it can get discouraging when it seems like nothing advocates do works, but thus far, trying to have rational discussions with the BLM seems to be working better than the alternative. Last I heard, sterilization was no longer being considered, but I don’t know if it’s completely off the table, or put on pause for now.

As new ideas are being brought to the table, I think advocates will need to be careful about making sure they have current facts, and making sure they understand the wording of EAs. Using the Pryors as an example again, let’s talk about PZP. When PZP was first being used in the Pryors, some advocates were adamant that it went completely against natural selection, and not enough research had been done about side effects. The BLM was trying to say that since each mare has a window to foal, it mimics natural selection.

Both opinions have truth to them, but are a little selective in the facts they reference. It’s true, when applied at different times of the year, and with mares too young it can cause sterilization. In theory, since predators are limited to mountain lions (which aren’t exactly a protected species ), and the horses are fenced in, there does need to be something that mimics natural selection. If you do give a mare too many times in a row it does become permanent, and although PZP is reversible for most years, sometimes it takes longer than the allocated window to wear off. For more information about how PZP works, Rachel Reeves Photography wrote a great post on her blog that can be found here. As advocates began seeing the merit of PZP, they started pushing for more use, seemingly forgetting the side affects they warned about.

I bring up this example, because when the Billings BLM first proposed increasing PZP in the Pryors, I figured it was better than removing horses. Now that I have the information presented in a different manner, I worry that even with the best of intentions excessive PZP use is still going to take away genetics. Was the information already there? Probably, but the challenge to wild horse management issues is they’s often a lot to take in.

As I write this, I almost wonder if advocates should have an even more general approach to wild horse management, and shift towards range management. After all, saying that the BLM manages public land is pretty much saying they manage rangeland. If there’s other uses than wildlife, start by removing some of the competition. If there’s a way to make range improvements such as seeding or adding guzzlers advocate for them.

That doesn’t mean ignore other forms of management, though. It’s the compromise I mentioned, and a good one could be that the BLM can dart a certain amount of mares if they also add a guzzler, or remove livestock. Advocates could even volunteer to help with some of those range improvements. I think if advocates want to start true adaptive management they wouldn’t rely on only one option.

I’ve already talked about the PZP program in the Pryors, so I might as well keep on going. The last helicopter removal was in 2009, so that’s a step in the right direction. Horses weren’t removed via bait trap last year, so I’d like to think that’s a good thing, but I also worry it means PZP is being relied on too much. Now that I’m starting to see some of the impact PZP is having, I almost wish a mare could be treated with PZP from 1-5, then be taken off until at least one of her offspring (preferably a filly since they have a better chance of breeding than a colt) is mature enough to have their first foal. The horses end up being more prolific than expected, then a small bait trap removal could take place.

Each HMA should be managed differently, but I think advocates in the Pryors should bring up more range management than the existing guzzlers. When I was in the Pryors June, 2016, Mystic Pond was the driest I’ve ever seen it. It was dusty, and there was only one strip of snow left. I don’t think the Pryors got a lot of precipitation over the summer, so I’d imagine that put a lot of pressure at other water sources. It’s been a while since I’ve read the most current Range Management Plan so I could be wrong, but I don’t think anyone thinks to reseed unless it’s due to a man-made disturbance. With how rocky Mystic gets, and all the horse trials, it might not be the easiest place to reseed, but it probably couldn’t hurt.

This is only one example of how to look at management, and since the NEPA process is a lot of work, I can see where the BLM might find it beneficial to create longer EAs so they can cover more scenarios of adaptive management rather than create multiple EAs. I think it will make it harder for advocates to know exactly what they are responding to. Before anyone can begin to come up with management proposals, it is more important than ever to be objective, and know all the facts.


Ireland/Electra has been so prolific as an older mare, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of her fillies got removed. It’s hard to see any horse removed, but from an objective perspective it makes more sense than removing Washakie’s filly for example.


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