Photo of Corazón taken at Return to Freedom's Lompoc, Calif., headquarters sanctuary by Lori Sortino.
In a victory for Return to Freedom and animal-welfare advocates, Congress included in its Fiscal Year 2020 Interior Appropriations bill a first-ever requirement that Bureau of Land Management (BLM) roundups must be conducted in strict compliance with BLM’s Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program (CAWP) -- a set of humane handling standards for wild horses and burros.
RTF believes that the CAWP should be a living document, one routinely improved in response to what takes place on the range during roundups and in holding. The honing of these rules of the road – and the life and death consequences for wild horses and burros – should be made more transparent, enabling both improved congressional oversight and clarity for the public, which has a vested interest in the program because of the tax dollars it provides and its interest in the well-being of wild horses and burros.
Long a dream of wild horse advocates, applying safe, proven and humane fertility control as a way to phase out roundups as BLM’s primary management tool will not be attainable without handling wild horses and burros. The CAWP standards must be an applied, functioning and trusted part of this process.
In 1999, the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program brought in animal-handling expert Temple Grandin to observe how horses and burros were cared for both on- and off-range. Eleven years later, advocates exposing roundups through social media increased pressure on the BLM. There was a renewed effort by the agency to look more closely at their handling of wild horses and burros during helicopter gathers, in particular, and also across the program as a whole. This was not a new idea: welfare audits were already used in animal agriculture industries. Grandin and the American Horse Protection Association studied how the BLM handled horses, and UC Davis equine veterinarians developed the standards listed in the now-followed CAWP as a formal, proactive approach to those concerns.
The CAWP sought the following: to establish standard operating procedures (SOPs) for handling wild horses and burros; to assure a uniform application of those practices both on- and off-range; and to address the concerns of the public. Being “comprehensive,” it was to cover every point of time that wild horses and burros were handled --from capture and transport to housing (both short- and long-term) and then adoption.
The finalization of the CAWP occurred in 2015 (for roundups) and 2016 (for off-range, adoption, and transportation). The CAWP solidifies operational parameters that gathers must occur within (for example, horses cannot be rounded up when it is above 95 degrees and gather seasons cannot occur when foals are very young), defines feed and water requirements while horses are in holding, and limits how long horses can be on transport vehicles among many other details. The intention of the agency is to work towards internal audits to refine the system and then bring in external resources to further improve operations around the CAWP utilizing BLM’s own standards. These two important steps have not yet occurred. A critical BLM management position, that of the CAWP Coordinator, has sat empty for years, hampering efforts to improve the CAWP or to liaison between the public, contractors, and the agency. Hopefully, the position will be filled soon.
While the CAWP may be well-researched and well-intended, there is frustration with the bureaucracy surrounding its implementation. It leaves wide open questions like:
--When violations of the CAWP occur, how can a true complaint be filed, who will listen, and how will the public know corrective action has been taken?
--What are the consequences for a BLM contractor if its employees violate humane-handling standards, like pushing horses too hard in the heat or extreme cold?
--What documentation is provided to lawmakers and to the public about life-and-death decisions made during roundups?
--What are the protocols for capturing a separated foal or an injured horse that escape the trap?
--Why haven’t obvious changes, like flagging barbed wire during a roundup so that running wild horses will avoid it, been made?
--How can outside voices with ideas for improving the document engage the agency in positive dialogue?
The CAWP is a good idea. But it is of no value if it is not followed or improved upon as new lessons or techniques in low-stress handling of stock are learned but not applied, and not applied rigorously and seriously.
Please join us in urging Congress to press the BLM into reimagining the CAWP as a living document, continually improved upon and open to utilizing emerging and more current low-stress handling practices.