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Free To Roam

Records reveal vets didn’t back BLM plan to brutally sterilize wild mares

One of the more egregious plans the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has released over the last several years for the “management” of wild horses is the proposed surgical sterilization procedure, ovariectomy via colpotomy.

This outdated procedure is a blind surgery in which a veterinarian inserts his arm into a mares’ abdominal cavity through an incision in the vaginal wall, manually locates the ovaries, then twists severs and removes them using a rod-like tool with a chain on the end. The procedure is unscientific, inhumane and dangerous, and will result in pain, suffering, and potentially life-threatening complications for wild mares.

Despite multiple lawsuits, federal injunctions, and overwhelming congressional and public opposition, the BLM continues to push this option, culminating in its most recent proposal to attempt this procedure on wild mares from Utah’s Confusion Herd Management Area (after which AWHC has promptly sued to stop).

Throughout it all, the agency continues to say that veterinarians are in support of the procedure, though recently obtained records through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) tell a different story.

Surveying the Veterinarian Community

In 2019, the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) asked the veterinary community what method they would use to sterilize wild mares in a nationwide Request for Information (“RFI”). In response, AWHC filed a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request seeking information about the production of the RFI and any responses the BLM received. We actually had to file a lawsuit to compel the release of the requested records and just recently received the government’s response.

Although documents indicated there are “about 5,000” veterinarians in the United States who work on horses, only five veterinarians responded to BLM’s RFI.

Of the five veterinarians who responded to BLM’s 2019 RFI, none proposed sterilizing wild mares through ovariectomy via colpotomy, demonstrating that this procedure is widely regarded as inhumane and cannot be considered socially acceptable.

The 2019 survey asked veterinarians to identify what procedure they would use to sterilize wild mares, along with other information about such procedures, such as complication rates, and specifically noted that, “[i]t may be required that mare sterilization procedures be done in a way that allows for public observation, potentially including videography,” and asked whether respondents would “still be willing to perform the procedure.”

A BLM-contract Vet performing the dangerous procedure, ovariectomy via colpotomy.

Notably, the procedures that veterinarians proposed in response to BLM’s 2019 RFI were all arguably more humane than ovariectomy via colpotomy.

For example, they proposed to utilize tools and modern methods to visualize a mare’s organs during surgery rather than groping blindly inside the animal and proposed non-surgical methods for sterilization with fewer adverse physiological or behavioral repercussions.

Additionally, responding veterinarians indicated that they would be willing to allow observation or recording of the sterilization procedures. For example, one respondent who proposed a non-surgical sterilization method confirmed that “We would welcome allowing observation, photos, and/or videography by the public during the procedures” because “[i]t would be to an advantage to allow the public to confirm a humane method for reducing the overpopulation of wild horse herds while maintaining social behavior and herd integrity.”

Finally, the records clearly showed how the BLM uses marketing tactics to make questionable mismanagement decisions, like the use of the brutal ovariectomy via colpotomy procedure, more palatable to the public. For example, several internal communications discussed how the use of the word “spay” would be beneficial in order to connect what the procedures were to what is commonly done for cats and dogs. Yet, this is nowhere near an appropriate comparison.

In fact, in its final report entitled “Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward,” the National Academy of Sciences concluded that spaying was “inadvisable” and that, “Surgical ovariectomy and ovariohysterectomy are commonly used in domestic species, such as cats and dogs (including feral cats and dogs), but seldom applied to other free-ranging species.”

However, the BLM is still trying desperately to find a way to utilize such permanent sterilization options.

You can read the Communications Plan for the RFI related to wild horse mare sterilization here.

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Brieanah Schwartz

Brieanah Schwartz

I am the Director of Policy and Litigation for American Wild Horse Campaign.